Scientists seek silicon's successor

Aug 08, 2013 by Lisa M. Krieger

In the hunt for a sequel to silicon, scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Lab have flipped an "on-off" switch in the mineral magnetite that is far faster than today's transistors.

Computer circuits can't be made ever-smaller and faster with existing materials. So researchers at the Stanford-operated lab are preparing for the day when the famed Moore's Law hits the speed limit - that is, the number of transistors on a circuit no longer double every 1.5 years, as forecast by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

Magnetite, a naturally occurring mineral, isn't the answer, but it puts science one step closer.

"Miniaturization requires new materials," said Hermann Durr, the lead investigator of the SLAC team. "For me, this class of material is fascinating."

Using the lab's high-powered Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray laser, the scientists found that it takes just one-trillionth of a second to switch magnetite's from "on" to "off."

That's thousands of times faster than silicon chip transistors.

Magnetite is what gives magnets their pull. It is a common mineral - a type of - found in the black sands of beaches and elsewhere.

In the experiment, the laser struck the mineral - and in a tiny split of a second, the magnetite's rearranged into "islands" of electrical nonconductivity surrounded by conductive regions. The findings are reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature Materials.

But the mineral has too many practical limitations for use in computers.

For instance, the success of the experiment depended on an extremely frigid state: minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit.

"For this to be practical, we need to explore other materials and other methods," said Durr, also a staff scientist at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science. "We are just at the beginning."

The team is already testing another oxide compound, , which could have speedy switch speeds at room temperature - making it a more promising candidate for commercial use than magnetite.

Elsewhere, researchers are developing alternative materials such as gallium arsenide, graphene and carbon nanotubes.

They envision a day when transistors are so fast, small and energy-efficient that smartphones have the power of supercomputers.

"This is the dream," Durr said, "and to realize a little bit of it is terrific.

"Transistors took 50 years from demonstration to dominance," he said. "It's very hard to imagine what we'll have 50 years from today."

Explore further: Towards controlled dislocations

Journal reference: Nature Materials search and more info website

4.6 /5 (9 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Speed limit set for ultrafast electrical switch

Jul 28, 2013

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have clocked the fastest-possible electrical switching in magnetite, a naturally magnetic mineral. Their results ...

Landmark discovery has magnetic appeal for scientists

Dec 21, 2011

A fundamental problem that has puzzled generations of scientists has finally been solved after more than 70 years. An international team of scientists has discovered a subtle electronic effect in magnetite – the most ...

Fantastic flash memory combines graphene and molybdenite

Mar 19, 2013

Swiss scientists have combined two materials with advantageous electronic properties—graphene and molybdenite—into a flash memory prototype that is very promising in terms of performance, size, flexibility ...

Recommended for you

Triplet threat from the sun

16 hours ago

The most obvious effects of too much sun exposure are cosmetic, like wrinkled and rough skin. Some damage, however, goes deeper—ultraviolet light can damage DNA and cause proteins in the body to break down ...

Towards controlled dislocations

Oct 20, 2014

Crystallographic defects or irregularities (known as dislocations) are often found within crystalline materials. Two main types of dislocation exist: edge and screw type. However, dislocations found in real ...

Chemists tackle battery overcharge problem

Oct 17, 2014

Research from the University of Kentucky Department of Chemistry will help batteries resist overcharging, improving the safety of electronics from cell phones to airplanes.

Surface properties command attention

Oct 17, 2014

Whether working on preventing corrosion for undersea oil fields and nuclear power plants, or for producing electricity from fuel cells or oxygen from electrolyzers for travel to Mars, associate professor ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

sirchick
not rated yet Aug 08, 2013
I really hope we can find a good solution that will hugely improve computers. I want THz cpu's in my life time! :P