In many science fiction tales, computers and robots are grown much like living organisms as opposed to being constructed through manufacturing. That fiction might soon be reality, thanks to a team of scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that has managed to do just that.
According to the researchers’ recent publication in Nature Nanotechnology, the ever-decreasing size of computing technology means that silicon will soon be obsolete as a semiconductor due to the fact that the performance of silicon decreases with its size. As a result, the need for new semi-conductive materials is paramount for keeping up with Moore’s Law:
Next-generation electronics calls for new materials beyond silicon, aiming at increased functionality, performance and scaling in integrated circuits. In this respect, two-dimensional gapless graphene and semiconducting transition-metal dichalcogenides have emerged as promising candidates due to their atomic thickness and chemical stability.
The researchers were able to ‘grow’ these circuits using etched graphene. To create this nano-scale circuits, a ‘mold’ of sorts is etched into conductive graphene, the key component in carbon nanostructures. Next, a semiconducting material called a transition-metal dichalcogenide, or TMDC, is released into the openings of the graphene etchings. As the material fills the etchings, its own natural atomic structure forms a semi-conductive lattice with a thickness of only a single atom. Since the material is semi-conductive, it is perfect for applications such as in circuitry, in which must it be able to function in both ‘on’ and ‘off’ states.
TMDC crystal lattices are so thin that they are referred to as two-dimensional. Materials such as the TMDC crystals used in this study are believed by many to be the future of nanotechnology and maybe even all electronics due to their scalability. Marvin Zhao, lead author of this study, stated in a press release that all circuits might one day be grown through a similar method:
[These] two-dimensional crystals have been synthesized in the wafer scale in a way that is compatible with current semiconductor manufacturing. By integrating our technique with other growth systems, it’s possible that future computing can be done completely with atomically thin crystals.
Assembling circuitry on the atomic level could lead to working computers that are smaller than can be seen by the naked eye, allowing them to be incorporated into existing nanotechnology.
This study and other research into two-dimensional semi-conductive crystals could lead to a new generation of electronic devices that are less than paper-thin, meaning we might one day achieve those cool animated newspapers from the wizarding world we all know and love.