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In The LAB

Semiconducting the Future IN BRIEF Microelectronic devices group explores new materials for future computer chips Name Del Alamo Group and high-power Director As computer-chip makers struggle to build faster hopes that in about 12 years, he’ll have developed Jesus del Alamo microprocessors, they must continually shrink the tran- InGaAs technology to the point where industry could sistors at the heart of those chips in order to cram in step in and start refining manufacturing processes. Contact www-mtl.mit.edu/~alamo/ more power. In the not-too-distant future, they’ll reach He doesn’t know for sure that InGaAs will eventu- a point where the devices can’t get any smaller, a thresh- ally become the basis for computer chips, but he’s Major projects old that could end a half-century of steady increases in hopeful. “It’s a bit far-fetched,” he admits. “It’s a non- Indium arsenide computing power. But Jesus del Alamo looks at that silicon material” in an industry that is built on silicon. transistors transistors looming limit and sees opportunity. “But it has a lot to offer.” Silicon interconnects for “We work on extreme devices, I tell my students,” Another material he’s investigating is gallium millimeter-wave systems says del Alamo, associate director of the Microsystems nitride (GaN), a compound used to Technology Laboratories. “I’m interested in electronic make certain types of LEDs. It could also make tran- devices at the extremes of operation.” sistors that could handle more power and voltage than He’s talking about devices that work at very high today’s devices. Such transistors would be useful as power and voltage levels, as well as those that are very, automobiles’ electrical systems move from 12-volt to very small. In about 15 years, manufacturers won’t be 42-volt setups that can handle all the new able to make the silicon devices that currently rule the expected in future cars. They would allow for high- chip world any smaller. Once the features get down to efficiency, high-power cell-phone transmitters that about 20 nanometers in thickness, any further shrink- could transmit at higher frequencies, where more age will cause electrons to jump from one place to bandwidth is available. They’d also be useful in wire- another, short-circuiting the devices. less large-area networks, plasma televisions, and mili- Del Alamo’s group may have one solution: building tary weapons systems. microprocessors out of so-called exotic semiconduc- The problem with GaN is that it easily develops tor materials such as indium microscopic cracks that render it useless. Del Alamo’s (InGaAs). Because of its different crystalline struc- group has found that a layer of aluminum gallium ture, electrons flow more quickly through InGaAs nitride, placed on the devices to trap electrons, induces than through silicon. The result is faster performance mechanical strain on the GaN, which then stretches in circuits of a given size. until it can’t carry electrons efficiently. In addition, Engineers have long used InGaAs for applications high voltages cause mechanical strain, and the two such as spectroscopy and millimeter-wave com- stresses together destroy the device. Del Alamo says munications. Now del Alamo and postdoc Dae-Hyun this new understanding of the problem suggests pos- Kim have built a 60-nanometer that can carry sible solutions, such as using thinner barrier layers two and a half times as much current as a 65-nanometer with less aluminum and altering the electrical field to silicon transistor—today’s state of the art. This suggests eliminate voltage peaks. that even when transistors can’t get smaller, new materi- Housed in Building 39, del Alamo’s group consists als can still improve the devices’ performance by work- of eight members, including grad students, postdocs, ing faster. “By the time we reach 20 nanometers, silicon and a visiting professor. It receives funding from Intel, is expected not to work at all, and this material is as well as through the Microelectronics Advanced expected to work very well,” del Alamo says. Research Corporation, a research consortium formed It will still take a lot of work to develop InGaAs into by the semiconductor industry. a viable alternative to silicon. For one thing, while nega- Suman Datta, a researcher in Intel’s Advanced tively charged electrons flow easily through the material, Transistor and Nanotechnology Group, collaborates their positively charged counterparts, “holes,” move at with del Alamo and calls the results coming out of his a much slower pace. Microprocessors need both to con- lab “very impressive.” He agrees with del Alamo that trol the flow of power through a device; otherwise, heat there’s a lot of work to be done to make an InGaAs becomes a problem. Del Alamo believes that by manip- device that is practical and compatible with silicon ulating the mechanical strain on the material, he will be manufacturing processes. “This kind of research needs able to change the crystalline structure to promote bet- to be encouraged and pursued, but the challenges that ter movement of holes. The material will also require come with it [must be] identified and addressed at the new device designs and manufacturing technology. He same time,” Datta says. www.technologyreview.com/insider 4