Extreme electronics: Goodbye silicon, hello oxides

Thin film oxides could handle more heat and power than silicon can, supporting higher voltage smart grids, expanding the reach of sensors, and pushing the frontiers of electronics.

Our lives depend on silicon-based electronics. Semiconductors built from the sand-based material pervade our gadgets, computers, cars, vending machines, stop lights, toys, games, road signs, bank cards, you name it.

But for all its ubiquity, silicon has its limitations.  For one: it can only handle so much power and heat.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have taken a big step toward an alternative material - a thin film oxide - that would withstand more extreme conditions than silicon, auguring improvements in everything from high voltage electricity transmission to sensors operating in high temperature environments.

"Because oxides can handle higher voltages than silicon-based electronics, the material could be used to create higher voltage switches for the power grid, which would allow more power to be transmitted on the existing infrastructure," writes the website Physorg. "Similarly, this would allow the develpment of sensors for use in higher-temerature enviornments, because oxides are more stable at high temperatures."

The material also portends new types of gas sensors, including testing for air toxicity in security situations, the article states.

Scientists have known about the potential for thin film oxides for some time. But the NC State team has cracked a major obstacle: It has figured out how to make an efficient junction between the "positive" and "negative" regions.

To overcome the nagging inefficiency that has plagued earlier attempts at deploying thin film oxides, the researchers used the same material for both the positive and negative side. It created nickel oxide thin film for the positive side, and then converted the same material to a negative type, by using lasers.

"This is a new era in oxide electronics," says Jay Narayan, the John C. Fan Distinguished Chair Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, as quoted by Physorg.

As an added benefit, Narayan points out that "these materials are also transparent, so this makes transparent electronics possible," (perhaps supporting see through photovoltaic windows?).

Narayan is one of the co-authors of a paper, "Controlled p-type and n-type conductivity transformation in NiO thin films by ultraviolet-laser irradiation," published in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Photo from Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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