A new transistor design could cut 5 percent of the world’s digital energy budget

The new microchips can even retain memory during a power loss.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A nanoscale rendering of two materials that are crucial to the new transistor..jpg
A nanoscale rendering of two materials that are crucial to the new transistor.

University of Nebraska 

Nothing lasts forever.

And silicon-based microchips are no exception; nearing their practical limits. This constitutes a major challenge to global industries.

“The traditional integrated circuit is facing some serious problems,” said the physicist Peter Dowben, who's also the Charles Bessey Professor of physics and astronomy at Nebraska, in a Monday statement from Nebraska University.

“There is a limit to how much smaller it can get. We’re basically down to the range where we’re talking about 25 or fewer silicon atoms wide," added Dowben. "And you generate heat with every device on an (integrated circuit), so you can’t any longer carry away enough heat to make everything work, either.”

But a new advancement could reduce the number of transistors needed to store data by as much as 75 percent, even cutting up to 5 percent of the world's energy requirements, according to a recent study published in the journal Advanced Materials.

A new approach to transistors 

Dowben and his team needed a new approach to transistors, and they found it. They switched from depending on electric charges to relying on spin: a magnetism-related property of electrons that points up or down and can be read, like electric charge can; as a 1 or a 0.

They then used graphene underlayed by magneto-electric chromium oxide to produce a spintronic-based transistor. The end result was that when applying positive voltage, the spins of the underlying chromium oxide pointed up — yielding a detectable signal in the process.

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Meanwhile, negative voltage flipped the spins of the chromium oxide to downward, generating a signal clearly distinguishable from the other.

“Now you are starting to get really good fidelity (in the signal), because if you’re sitting on one side of the device, and you’ve applied a voltage, then the current is going this way. You can say that’s ‘on,’” Dowben explained. “But if it’s telling the current to go the other way, that’s clearly ‘off.’"

Huge fidelity with a very low energy cost

“This potentially gives you huge fidelity at very little energy cost. All you did was apply voltage, and it flipped," added the researcher.

The team's new development is said to reduce the number of transistors needed to store certain data by up to 75 percent while slicing up to 5 percent of the energy from the world's power-hungry diet. The new device can even retain memory during a power loss.

Best of all, the process is adaptable and can be done with other materials than graphene.

“Now that it works, the fun begins, because everybody’s going to have their own favorite 2D material, and they’re going to try it out,” Dowben said. “Some of them will work a lot, lot better, and some won’t. But now that you know it works, it’s worth investing in those other, more sophisticated materials that could."

“Now everybody can get into the game, figuring out how to make the transistor really good and competitive and, indeed, exceed silicon,” added Doben.

With a new transistor capable of defeating silicon on the horizon, we may soon see a race to test advanced materials. It's an exciting time to be alive, where the backbone of the computing revolution itself is evolving like never before.

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