Alternative Media

A World Beyond Silicon

A World Beyond Silicon

by Michael Keller

Our world is now awash in data—as you read this, computers and sensors in your pocket, your home, the automobile outside and the power plant down the street are all generating reams of information.

Analysts say we’re just at the beginning of our ubiquitous-computing society. Our not-too-distant future will see an explosion of data production, from connected jet engines that create and share data about how they’re performing to wearable technologies that monitor your vital signs to tell you how well your body is performing.

Sensors and processors have already started to mediate a majority of elements that comprise the human experience from birth to death. Meanwhile, the infrastructure undergirding civilization is slowly becoming embedded with electronics while we navigate our social and working life with data-generating laptops, smartphones, apps and entertainment systems.

“Today, we have a humongous amount of data coming from video, text, graphics,” said Stanford University electrical engineer H.-S. Philip Wong during a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. “These are being processed in data centers but also on our bodies in electronics that have different requirements from traditional computers. And soon we’re going to have even more data needing processing from a trillion sensors that will be produced every day.”

Wong says this demand for a range of processors that can fit all the places where people will want to put them means we need to start thinking beyond silicon.

The element has been at the heart of the computing revolution since the very beginning, when engineers realized they’d need a semiconducting material to serve as the foundation for integrated circuits. Silicon, a metalloid that exhibits semiconducting properties, was the clear choice since it is one of the most common elements on Earth.

But data processing capacity won’t match demand if innovation is left to business-as-usual silicon chip improvements. “We need to do a hundred to a thousand times better to process all this data that will be coming from these sensors,” Wong says.

Part of the solution, he says, is to increase the efficiency of processors by tightly merging memory and logic functions together. “Now, a lot of the energy consumed in a chip is in moving data around, not processing it,” he says. “The key is to work logic, memory and wires all together—and only new materials can do these very complex things.”

Now researchers like him are looking at other advanced elements—materials like atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms called graphene and equally impossibly thin sheets of germanium called germanane— to succeed the world’s semiconductor workhorse. Just yesterday,technology news site Ars Technica reported that Intel might be looking to step away from silicon in their next run of chips to a semiconducting material like indium gallium arsenide. Because this material lets electrons move more quickly through it when pulled by an electric field, it means the company could produce smaller and faster transistors that would help increase processing speed.

Others, like Joshua Goldberger, an assistant chemistry professor at The Ohio State University, are pursuing germanane. His goal is to engineer the two-dimensional sheet of linked germanium atoms in such a way that it lets electrons fly through at rates 10 times faster than silicon. He says success with the material would also be a boon for lasers and more efficient LEDs because germanane is better at absorbing and emitting light than current compounds.

“We need to move away from the paradigm of building electronics on wafers; they need to be atom-thin,” Goldberger said at the AAAS meeting. “Germanane, graphene, black phosphorous—these all have unique properties and novel phenomena at the atomic scale. We can tune these properties by architecting the bonds between atoms.”

Top Image: Circuits being built on a wafer of silicon via Shutterstock.


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