The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Berkeley creates energy saving crystals

New material can improve efficiency in all computing devices Metal Tech News – April 13, 2022

In a breakthrough that could lower the energy needs for computing, University of California, Berkeley engineers have created zirconium-hafnium crystal structures that could make anything that uses advanced transistors more energy efficient.

"We have been able to show that our gate-oxide technology is better than available transistors: What the trillion-dollar semiconductor industry can do today – we can essentially beat them," said study senior author Sayeef Salahuddin, a distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley.

The boost in efficiency is made possible by an unusual physical phenomenon known as negative capacitance, which helps reduce the amount of voltage that is needed to store charge in a material.

Salahuddin theoretically predicted the existence of negative capacitance in 2008 and first demonstrated the effect in a ferroelectric crystal in 2011.

The new study – published in "Nature" last week – shows how negative capacitance can be achieved in an engineered crystal composed of a layered stack of hafnium oxide and zirconium oxide, which is readily compatible with advanced silicon transistors.

"In the last 10 years, the energy used for computing has increased exponentially, already accounting for single digit percentages of the world's energy production, which grows only linearly, without an end in sight," Salahuddin said.

By incorporating the material into model transistors, the study has demonstrated how the negative capacitance effect can significantly lower the amount of voltage required to control transistors, and as a result, the amount of energy consumed by a computer.

"Usually, when we are using our computers and our cell phones, we don't think about how much energy we are using," he continued. "But it is a huge amount, and it is only going to go up. Our goal is to reduce the energy needs of this basic building block of computing, because it brings down the energy needs for the entire system."

Modern laptops and smartphones contain tens of billions of tiny silicon transistors, and each of which must be controlled by applying a voltage.

You can read a more in-depth explanation about how transistors work in Quantum computing closer with germanium in the March 24, 2020, edition of Metal Tech News.

The gate oxide is a thin layer of material that converts the applied voltage into an electric charge, which then switches the transistor.

Negative capacitance can boost the performance of the gate oxide by reducing the amount of voltage required to achieve a given electrical charge. But the effect cannot be achieved in just any material-creating negative capacitance requires careful manipulation of a material property called ferroelectricity, which occurs when a material exhibits a spontaneous electrical field.

In previous experiments, the effect has only been achieved in ferroelectric materials called perovskites, whose crystal structure is not compatible with silicon. In the recent study, the team showed that negative capacitance can also be achieved by combining hafnium oxide and zirconium oxide in an engineered crystal structure called a superlattice, which leads to simultaneous ferroelectricity and antiferroelectricity.

"We found that this combination actually gives us an even better negative capacitance effect, which shows that this capacitance phenomena is a lot broader than originally thought," said study co-first author Suraj Cheema, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. "Negative capacitance doesn't just occur in the conventional picture of a ferroelectric with a dielectric, which is what's been studied over the past decade."

The researchers found that a superlattice structure composed of the three atomic layers of zirconium oxide sandwiched between two single atomic layers of hafnium oxide – totaling less than two nanometers in thickness – provided the best negative capacitance effect.

"You can actually make the effect even stronger by engineering these crystal structures to exploit antiferroelectricity in tandem with ferroelectricity," added Cheema.

Because most top-of-the-line silicon transistors already use a two-nanometer gate oxide composed of hafnium on top of silicon dioxide, and since zirconium oxide is also used in silicon technologies, these superlattice structures can easily be integrated into advanced transistors.

"One of the issues that we often see in this type of research is that we can demonstrate various phenomena in materials, but those materials are not compatible with advanced computing materials, and so we cannot bring the benefit to real technology," said Salahuddin.

To test how well the superlattice structure would perform as a gate oxide, the team fabricated short-channel transistors and tested their capabilities. These transistors would require approximately 30% less voltage while maintaining semiconductor industry benchmarks and with no less reliability, compared to existing transistors.

"This work transforms negative capacitance from an academic topic to something that could actually be used in an advanced transistor," finished Salahuddin.


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