AsianScientist (May 28, 2020) â€“ Inside the smartphones we hold in our hands to the laptops we carry around lies a silicon-based chip. In the early days of modern electronics, the processing power of these chips doubled roughly every two yearsâ€”a phenomenon known as Mooreâ€™s Law. This was made possible by shrinking the transistors and increasing their density on a single chip. However, transistors can only get so small, bringing Mooreâ€™s Law to a screeching halt.
With slowing improvements, scientists are now looking to integrate high-performance semiconductors into silicon chips. Such innovations are necessary for running newer technologies like 5G. Unfortunately, most consumer chips have been driven beyond their limits by current communication systems, often overheating up and shutting off after a short time.
But the Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES) team at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), headed by SMARTâ€™s CEO and Director Eugene Fitzgerald, have broken through this seemingly impenetrable wall. Under Fitzgeraldâ€™s leadership, the research enterprise has announced a successful method of commercially manufacturing novel silicon III-V chips, bringing Singapore to the forefront of the global micro-electronics market.
Silicon III-V chips use elements in the third and fifth rows of the elemental periodic table, such as gallium nitride and indium arsenide. These so-called â€˜III-V materialsâ€™ have unique properties that make them suited for next-generation silicon chips.
â€œThe people have actually wanted to do this for decades, probably since the 1980s,â€ said Fitzgerald. â€œThe dream is to take these high-performance materials and merge them with the silicon world.â€
Despite enduring interest in developing these silicon III-V chips, significant challenges have prevented these chips from being realized until now, that is. The barriers exist on two planes: on a scientific, theoretical level, as well as a downstream manufacturing level.
For instance, adding a thin substrate of the III-V materials onto a layer of silicon causes dislocations and defects in both. Furthermore, the manufacturing processes of these two materials are often mismatched. Manufacturing silicon requires workers to be in clean suits and sterile factories, which are often not compatible with the techniques and technologies needed for III-V materials.
LEES has overcome such problems by developing a new technology which builds two layers of silicon and III-V devices on separate substrates before vertically integrating them together. Even better, the process leverages pre-existing manufacturing facilities and methods.
Fitzgerald emphasized that such innovations were possible by integrating downstream considerations into the entire research process, â€œWhat people donâ€™t realize is the way you do science is affected by what is downstream. This is a greater innovation model that weâ€™re trying to put into SMART.â€
By having industry realities guide their impact-driven research model, LEES made their method commercially viable.
Their technology will now form the basis for a new startup coming out of SMART: the New Silicon Corporation. Fitzgerald hopes that the company will not only produce leading-edge technology, but also come ready with an inventive new business strategy.
According to Fitzgerald, New Silicon would not manufacture the chips themselves, but would still own the intellectual property of the end product. All the expensive and capital-heavy production would be outsourced. Rather than having to absorb the rents of huge factories, only the high-skill designing and R&D would take place in Singapore. This model may be optimal and more sustainable for the country, Fitzgerald argued. For him, this business model could play a substantial role in Singaporeâ€™s economy, potentially extending beyond micro-electronics to all fields of technology and business.
SMARTâ€™s announcement is expected to have huge impacts for 5G markets and pixelated displays, including wearable devices, virtual reality and imaging technologies. Fitzgerald is excited for what this spells for the future.
â€œI donâ€™t think anybody would have predicted before we started that Singapore has the chance to have the leading-edge integrated circuit company in the world,â€ he said.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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