Revolutionary material allows electrons to travel on its surface with no loss of energy, drastically improving computer chip efficiency and possibly replacing common silicon semiconductors.
There have been several quiet revolutions in the history of the computer chip industry, but as news filtered out of the scientific world of materials science this summer, we learned that we may just be on the cusp of a revolution that could not only have a dramatic effect on superconducter speed, it could make silicon wafers a thing of the past.
Computer speed continues to double once every 12-24 months, and the exponential rate of improvement shows no signs of slowing. From the latest Intel processor to the latest O2uk Broadband, the proof is everywhere that speed has become a major focus on the computer industry. Nowhere is it more important than at the heart of the computer - the chip.
Physicists at DOE's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have confirmed the existence of a type of material that could one day provide dramatically faster, more efficient computer chips. And some companies are betting that bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3) could even become the bedrock of an entirely new kind of computing industry -- one based on "spintronics". Spintronic devices use the spin, rather than the charge, of materials to store information.
Theoretical and experimental physicists led by Yulin Chen and Zhi-Xun Shen at the Stanford Institute for Materials & Energy Science tested the behavior of electrons in the compound bismuth telluride. The results, published in June at Science Express, show a clear signature of a material that enables the free flow of electrons across its surface with no loss of energy.
One of the most important facets of the bismuth telluride discovery is that the material is fairly simple to grow and develop with the current mature semiconductor technology. "It's a three-dimensional material, so it's easy to fabricate with the current mature semiconductor technology," said Stanford physicist Chen. "This is already a very exciting thing," he said, adding that the material "could let us make a device with new operating principles."
Long hypothesized, but now confirmed as a viable material for the much faster spintronic computing, computer chips made with Bi2Te3 may be on the scene faster than one might expect. Stuart Fox writes at Popular Science: "So far, monetary and energy costs have significantly complicated the process of developing quantum computers, two hurdles this new discovery may help clear."
Companies making significant investments or otherwise well positioned for growth in the bismuth telluride market include American Elements, Noah Technologies, Cerac and Alfa Chem.
Photo: barnoid via flickr/Creative Commons