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By Rose Ragsdale
For Metal Tech News 

Scientists report new use for graphene

Says 2D material could replace silicon in future microchips Metal Tech News – January 4, 2023


Last updated 1/3/2023 at 3:34pm

Closeup of epitaxial graphene electronics chip balanced on woman’s fingertip.

Jess Hunt-Ralston, Georgia Tech

Claire Berger, a physics professor at Georgia Tech, holds a graphene device grown on a silicon carbide substrate chip.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology may have identified the material that will replace silicon in the next generation of tinier and more efficient computer chips.

With silicon nearly maxed out in its ability to accommodate faster computing, scientists say a new large nanoelectronics platform is needed, now more than ever.

In the search for a material that could replace silicon, graphene has seemed promising for decades. But its potential reportedly faltered along the way, due to damaging processing methods and the lack of a new electronics paradigm to embrace it.

Graphene breakthrough

A team led by Walter de Heer, regents' professor in the School of Physics at Georgia Tech, outlined an exciting new graphene breakthrough in a paper, titled "An epitaxial graphene platform for zero-energy edge state nanoelectronics," published in the Dec. 19 edition of Nature Communications.

In the paper's abstract, senior researcher and first author Vladimir Prudkovskiy wrote that graphene's original promise to succeed silicon faltered "due to pervasive edge disorder in lithographically patterned deposited graphene and the lack of a new electronics paradigm."

Now, the de Heer-led team has taken a critical step forward in making the case for a successor to silicon by developing a new nanoelectronics platform based on the 2D carbon material graphene.

Made of a single sheet of carbon atoms, graphene is rapidly gaining utility in new applications being adopted by many industries.

The new graphene platform developed at Georgia Tech is compatible with conventional microelectronics manufacturing, which the scientists say is a necessity for any viable alternative to silicon.

"Graphene's power lies in its flat, two-dimensional structure that is held together by the strongest chemical bonds known," de Heer said. "It was clear from the beginning that graphene can be miniaturized to a far greater extent than silicon, enabling much smaller devices, while operating at higher speeds and producing much less heat. This means that, in principle, more devices can be packed on a single chip of graphene than with silicon."

In 2001, de Heer proposed an alternative form of electronics based on epitaxial graphene, or "epigraphene" - a layer of graphene that was found to spontaneously form on top of silicon carbide crystal, a semiconductor used in high-power electronics.

At the time, the researchers found that electric currents flow without resistance along epigraphene's edges, and that graphene devices could be seamlessly interconnected without metal wires. This combination allows for a form of electronics that relies on the unique light-like properties of graphene electrons.

"Quantum interference has been observed in carbon nanotubes at low temperatures, and we expect to see similar effects in epigraphene ribbons and networks," de Heer told a reporter recently. "This important feature of graphene is not possible with silicon."

Building the platform

To create the new nanoelectronics platform, the researchers fashioned a modified form of epigraphene on a silicon carbide crystal substrate. In collaboration with researchers at the Tianjin International Center for Nanoparticles and Nanosystems at the University of Tianjin, China, they produced unique chips from electronics-grade silicon carbide crystals. The graphene itself was grown at de Heer's laboratory at Georgia Tech using patented furnaces.

The researchers used electron beam lithography, a method commonly used in microelectronics, to carve the graphene nanostructures and weld their edges to the silicon carbide chips. This process mechanically stabilizes and seals the graphene's edges, which would otherwise react with oxygen and other gasses that might interfere with the motion of the charges along the edge.

Finally, to measure the electronic properties of the new graphene platform, the team used a cryogenic apparatus that allows them to record its properties from a near-zero temperature to room temperature.

Observing the edge

The electric charges the team observed in the graphene edge state were similar to photons in an optical fiber that can travel over large distances without scattering. They found that the charges traveled for tens of thousands of nanometers along the edge before scattering.

Graphene electrons in previous technologies could only travel about 10 nanometers before bumping into small imperfections and scattering in different directions.

"What's special about the electric charges in the edges is that they stay on the edge and keep on going at the same speed, even if the edges are not perfectly straight," said Claire Berger, physics professor at Georgia Tech and director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France.

This advantageous characteristic may be due to a newly discovered quasiparticle that could lead to manufacturing smaller, faster, more efficient, and more sustainable computer chips for quantum and high-performance computing.

In metals, electric currents are carried by negatively charged electrons. But contrary to the researchers' expectations, their measurements suggested that the edge currents were not carried by electrons or by holes (a term for positive quasiparticles indicating the absence of an electron).

Walter de Heer and Claire Berger holding model of graphene on silicon.

Jess Hunt-Ralston, Georgia Tech

Walter de Heer and Claire Berger holding an atomic model of graphene (black atoms) on crystalline silicon carbide (yellow atoms) in the Epitaxial Graphene Lab at Georgia Tech.

Rather, the currents were carried by a highly unusual quasiparticle that has no charge and no energy, and yet moves without resistance. The components of the hybrid quasiparticle were observed to travel on opposite sides of the graphene's edges, despite being a single object.

The unique properties indicate that the quasiparticle might be one that physicists have been hoping to exploit for decades - the elusive Majorana fermion predicted by Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana in 1937.

"Developing electronics using this new quasiparticle in seamlessly interconnected graphene networks is game changing," de Heer said.

It will likely be another five to 10 years before the first graphene-based electronics will be functional, according to de Heer, but thanks to the team's new epitaxial graphene platform, observers say technology is closer than ever to crowning graphene as a successor to silicon.


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