Samsung promises a game changer in chip design

This new material could yield everything from better solar cells to faster Wi-Fi

Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) last week announced it had discovered a new way to use graphene in the production of semiconductors, giving chip makers a stronger and more durable alternative to silicon.

Samsung developed the new process in partnership with Seoul-based Sungkyungkwan University's School of Advanced Materials Science and Engineering. The old method of using multiple graphene crystals on a semiconductor didn't work because the material properties would deteriorate. The new method involves using a single, large area graphene crystal onto the semiconductor wafer.

Graphene is a carbon-based crystalline lattice that is extremely strong, lightweight, and an excellent conductor of electricity and heat, exactly what chips could use. Samsung said it believes graphene "makes the perfect material" for next-generation devices. That's because ounce for ounce, graphene is stronger than steel, has high heat conductibility, is flexible, and has much greater electron mobility than silicon.

The research team figured out a new way of creating large area, single crystal wafer of graphene on a specially developed layer of germanium. Germanium is another important element in the race to smaller micron semiconductors. Germanium is also viewed as an alternative to silicon, having better conductivity properties and able to produce smaller chips, but it's also a tricky element to work with because it doesn't occur naturally.

What are the potential uses for graphene-based chips? Samsung believes it can be used in flexible displays, wearables and other next-generation electronic devices. Because of its high heat conductivity and strength, the most logical choice is to use it in place of silicon in the current generation of solar cells. This could translate into much smaller, denser solar cells that can collect more light and more efficient conversion of solar rays to electricity.

It will help all manner of computer chips to become even smaller and more efficient. This past January, IBM Research announced a graphene-based chip with performance it claimed was up to 10,000 times better than previous graphene chips. One example for potential use was in RF processors, like wireless networking. Instead of the usual 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequencies, IBM is talking about going up to 400Ghz. That should make for some strong signals.

It's all still lab stuff but it shows that silicon's days are numbered as it reaches the limits of what it can do and how small it can be made.

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