Imagine a world where our electronic devices are smarter and faster, lighter, more flexible, and capable of pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible.
With so many contenders emerging, the future of electronics is full of promise.
Silicon has served us well over the last few decades. However, the reign of silicon, the long-standing cornerstone of the industry, is now being challenged by a host of alternative materials that hold the key to unlocking revolutionary advancements.
According to Deep Jariwala, a professor at The Device Research and Engineering Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, “We have reached a point that even though you can keep shrinking silicon; it has reached a point where it is no longer energy efficient.”
“Even though silicon works at these extremely small dimensions, the energy efficiency required to do one calculation has been going up. And this makes it highly unsustainable. Energy-wise, it doesn't make sense anymore.”
While silicon has served us well, it's clear that it’s now time to explore new frontiers. We need to uncover the secrets of materials that offer extraordinary possibilities and pave the way for a new era of innovation.
New materials that are poised to shape the world as we know it.
Kaul ventures beyond silicon as Moore's Law pushes against boundaries
In the fast-paced realm of high-performance computing, Professor Anupama Kaul of University of North Texas is embarking on a groundbreaking journey to unlock the potential of nanomaterials and revolutionize the electronics industry.
With a focus on tungsten diselenide, Kaul is actively researching alternatives to silicon, addressing its inefficiencies and national security concerns.
“The trillion-dollar silicon electronics industry is facing dire challenges at this time from energy inefficiency within the switching states of the transistor,” Kaul says. “A lot of heat is dissipated in our devices such as laptops or iPhones.”
Silicon, the powerhouse behind the trillion-dollar electronics industry, is facing a critical crossroads due to energy inefficiency and the limitations of Moore's Law in transistor scaling.
This is where Kaul's expertise in two-dimensional layered materials (2DLMs) shines. She envisions a future of higher performance and energy-efficient computational devices by incorporating these materials into chips.
Their near-perfect atomic interfaces set these materials apart, allowing electrons to flow seamlessly without energy loss or obstacles, even at nanoscale dimensions.
But Kaul's research continues beyond there. She delves into quantum computing, a paradigm surpassing the binary limitations of silicon-based transistors. Quantum computing offers the potential for parallel logic computations and a multitude of states, challenging the status quo.
Kaul's work on advanced materials like tungsten diselenide aligns with national initiatives such as the National Quantum Initiative, which seeks to propel quantum research and development. These materials promise to enable single-photon emission and may be instrumental in bringing quantum computing to a chip.
Beyond the realms of technology, Kaul's research has far-reaching implications for national security and economic stability. Quantum computing is a topic of great significance, and the United States aims to reduce its dependence on overseas semiconductor manufacturing facilities.
While Kaul's research is still in its early stages, there is proof of a future where high-performance computing and quantum technologies emerge and coexist.
Potential Silicon Alternatives
Graphene is a popular single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice structure. It is the thinnest and strongest material known to humankind, with exceptional mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties.
Its unique atomic arrangement imbues it with unparalleled strength, remarkable electrical conductivity, and exceptional thermal conductivity, setting it apart from other materials.
Electronics and Computing. Graphene's exceptional electrical conductivity and high electron mobility make it ideal for next-generation electronic devices, offering faster transistors, low-power electronics, and potential applications in quantum computing.
Energy Storage. With its large surface area, electrical conductivity, and mechanical strength, graphene holds great promise for energy storage. It enables high-density supercapacitors and batteries that offer rapid charging, increased longevity, and the potential to transform the energy storage industry.
Sensing and Biosensing. Graphene's sensitivity to external stimuli makes it highly desirable for sensing applications, such as environmental monitoring, biomedical diagnostics, and wearable technologies, offering the ability to detect subtle environmental changes with exceptional precision and sensitivity.
Correlated oxides exhibit a wide range of intriguing behaviors, including high-temperature superconductivity, colossal magnetoresistance, metal-insulator transitions, multiferroicity, and more.
These phenomena arise from the delicate balance between charge, spin, orbital, and lattice degrees of freedom, giving rise to complex electronic and magnetic properties. Such complexity often stems from the interplay of different electron states, resulting in novel collective behaviors and phase transitions.
Electronics and Spintronics. Correlated oxides have the potential for next-generation memory devices and sensors, utilizing metal-insulator transitions and switchable magnetism.
Energy Conversion and Storage. Correlated oxides offer possibilities in energy transmission, generation, and storage, thanks to their high-temperature superconductivity and reversible structural phase transitions.
Sensing and Actuation. Correlated oxides' unique properties enable high-performance sensors and actuators, making them suitable for applications in robotics, biomedical devices, and smart systems.
Gallium Nitride (GaN)
Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a wide-bandgap semiconductor material that has gained significant attention in recent years for its potential to revolutionize power electronics.
GaN exhibits exceptional properties that contribute to its superiority in power electronics applications. One of the key characteristics of GaN is its wide bandgap, which allows it to operate at higher voltages and temperatures compared to silicon. This property enables GaN devices to handle higher power levels without compromising efficiency.
Power Converters and Inverters. GaN devices can be used in AC-DC and DC-DC converters, as well as inverters for motor drives. Their high efficiency and power handling capabilities enable smaller and more efficient power conversion systems.
Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Systems. GaN-based power electronics enable faster charging times, higher power densities, and improved efficiency in EV charging infrastructure, facilitating the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
Renewable Energy Systems. GaN devices can enhance the efficiency and power density of solar and wind power systems. They enable better energy conversion, reduce power losses, and contribute to the integration of renewable energy sources into the electrical grid.
Data Centers and Telecommunications Infrastructure. GaN-based power electronics offer higher power density and energy efficiency in data centers and telecommunications infrastructure, helping meet the increasing demand for data processing and communication
Organic materials are a class of compounds primarily composed of carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen and other elements.
In the context of electronics, organic materials refer to organic semiconductors and conducting polymers that exhibit unique electrical and optical properties. These materials offer several advantages, including flexibility, lightweight, and the potential for low-cost manufacturing.
Flexible displays. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) based on organic materials offer significant advantages for flexible displays. These displays can be rolled, bent, and curved, enabling new form factors for smartphones, televisions, and wearable devices.
Organic photovoltaics. Organic solar cells, also known as organic photovoltaics (OPV), have the potential to provide lightweight, flexible, and low-cost solar energy conversion. They can be integrated into building materials, portable electronics, and wearable devices.
Printed and flexible electronics. Organic materials can be printed on various substrates, enabling the production of flexible and conformable electronic circuits, sensors, and RFID tags. These applications find use in smart packaging, medical devices, and electronic textiles.
Bioelectronics and biomedical applications. Organic materials are compatible with biological systems, making them suitable for bioelectronic devices such as biosensors, bioelectrodes, and neural interfaces. They hold promise in medical diagnostics, drug delivery systems, and tissue engineering.
In addition to the materials above, other promising materials are on the horizon for future electronics. For example, two-dimensional materials like Transition Metal Dichalcogenides (TMDs) and Black Phosphorus show potential in applications such as flexible electronics and energy storage.
Hybrid materials such as Organic-Inorganic Perovskites are also being explored for their improved stability and performance in devices like solar cells and LEDs. These materials offer exciting opportunities for advancements in electronic technology.
What Does the Future Hold?
In the ever-evolving landscape of electronics, the future holds a myriad of possibilities. As researchers push the boundaries of innovation and explore new materials, the stage is set for a transformative technological revolution.
Key aspects of what the future may hold:
Advanced Performance. Future electronics will exhibit unparalleled performance, surpassing the capabilities of current devices. With materials like graphene and carbon nanotubes, we can expect faster and more efficient transistors, enabling higher processing speeds and enhanced computational power. This will pave the way for groundbreaking applications in fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and data-intensive tasks. This will have massive implications for a variety of important industries, including the banking and financial industry. For example, according to recent statistics, 80% of financial institutions see the possibilities of AI to help streamline their procedures and provide a safer and easier experience for their clientele.
Miniaturization. The future of electronics will witness an unprecedented level of miniaturization. With materials like carbon nanotubes and 2D materials, devices can be shrunk to nanoscale dimensions without sacrificing functionality. This miniaturization will revolutionize industries such as healthcare, where implantable medical devices and nanorobots could be used for precise diagnostics and targeted drug delivery.
Flexibility and Wearability. Flexible and wearable electronics will become increasingly prevalent in the future. Organic materials and 2D materials offer the unique advantage of flexibility, allowing devices to bend, fold, and conform to various surfaces. This opens up possibilities for smart clothing, bendable displays, and electronic skin that can monitor health parameters and seamlessly integrate technology into our daily lives.
Energy Efficiency. The demand for energy-efficient electronics will continue to grow. New materials like gallium nitride (GaN) offer higher energy conversion efficiency and lower power consumption, making them ideal for power electronics, electric v vehicles, and energy storage devices. Additionally, advancements in perovskite solar cells and organic photovoltaics hold the promise of highly efficient, low-cost renewable energy generation. We see this in automotive applications with the rise of electric vehicles, for instance, and the general population is beginning to take notice. Recent studies have shown that over 70% of people living in Canada and 40% of people living in the United States report that they are seriously considering an electric vehicle for their next auto purchase.
Sustainability and Biodegradability. The future of electronics will prioritize sustainability and environmental consciousness. Organic materials, which can be derived from renewable sources, have the potential to replace conventional materials that are harmful to the environment. Biodegradable electronics, made from materials that naturally decompose over time, will reduce electronic waste and contribute to a more sustainable future.
Integration of Emerging Technologies. Future electronics will seamlessly integrate with emerging technologies to create innovative solutions. This includes the integration of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, and advanced sensor technologies. These synergies will enable smart homes, smart cities, personalized healthcare, and immersive digital experiences.
Challenges and Ethical Considerations. While the future holds immense potential, it also presents challenges and ethical considerations. Technical hurdles, such as material synthesis, scalability, and reliability, need to be overcome to bring these new materials to commercial fruition. Additionally, privacy, security, and ethical concerns surrounding data collection and artificial intelligence must be addressed to ensure the responsible and beneficial use of future electronics.
The world of electronics is on the brink of a transformative revolution beyond the limits of traditional silicon. The emergence of alternative materials can reshape the electronics industry's future.
These materials offer unique properties and advantages that can unlock new possibilities for advanced, efficient, and miniaturized devices. Researchers, industry professionals, and policymakers must collaborate and will need to invest in the exploration and development of alternative materials.
With perseverance and innovation, researchers can unlock the transformative potential of these materials. This will revolutionize the electronics industry and pave the way for a future of advanced, sustainable, and interconnected electronic devices.
The era of beyond silicon has dawned, and the possibilities are vast and promising.
Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she served as lead programmer at an experiential branding organization serving such clients as Samsung,Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.