Liquid metal nano printing will shape the future of electronics: RMIT

A new discovery made by RMIT and other universities could mean the future of chip production is significantly cheaper and more efficient.

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Liquid metal. Image: RMIT

A new technique using liquid metals to create integrated circuits that are atoms thick could shape the future of electronics, according to research led by RMIT.

The technique, which can produce large electronic wafers around 1.5 nanometres in depth, was developed by researchers from RMIT, Monash University, North Carolina State University, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Benjamin Carey, a researcher with RMIT and CSIRO, said the technique overcomes one of the biggest limitations of current chip production -- the inability to create homogeneous surfaces of atomically thin semiconductors on large surface areas. The new technique would make large-scale chip production more efficient and cost-effective, Carey said.

"Our solution is to use the metals gallium and indium, which have a low melting point. These metals produce an atomically thin layer of oxide on their surface that naturally protects them. It is this thin oxide which we use in our fabrication method," Carey explained.

"By rolling the liquid metal, the oxide layer can be transferred onto an electronic wafer, which is then sulphurised. The surface of the wafer can be pre-treated to form individual transistors."

The technique also produces bendable materials that could pave the way for flexible electronics, Carey said.

Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh from RMIT's School of Engineering, who led the research project, said the electronics industry has hit a barrier.

"The fundamental technology of car engines has not progressed since 1920 and now the same is happening to electronics. Mobile phones and computers are no more powerful than five years ago," Kalantar-Zadeh said.

"That is why this new 2D printing technique is so important -- creating many layers of incredibly thin electronic chips on the same surface dramatically increases processing power and reduces costs.

"It will allow for the next revolution in electronics."

Earlier in February, Intel announced plans to invest $7 billion in the construction of its R&D factory in Arizona where it will produce its new 7-nanometre semiconductors.

Intel first announced plans for the Fab 42 factory in 2011 with construction slated to be completed by 2013. However, the plans were put on hold due to shrinking chip demand.

Around mid-2016, Samsung said the Internet of Things will drive semiconductor sales. The world's semiconductor market is growing 7 percent per year, while IoT will account for 25 percent, the company said at the time, which is why Samsung decided to increase its competence in semiconductors.

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