Common silicon electronic circuit board.
Image: Flickr/Creativity103

 

Metal Oxide Chips Show Promise as Transistors

Materials that flip from insulator to conductor could make more energy-efficient transistors, although the metals are not yet close to completing with silicon

By Eugenie Samuel Reich and Nature magazine

The switches in most electronic circuits are made of silicon, one of the commonest elements. But their successors might contain materials that, for now, are lab-grown oddities: strongly correlated metal oxides.

The allure of these materials lies in the outer shells of electrons surrounding their metal atoms. The shells are incomplete, leaving the electrons free to participate in coordinated quantum-mechanical behavior. In some materials, electrons pair up to produce super­conductivity, or coordinate their spins to produce magnetism. Other materials can switch from being an insulator to a conductor.

Unlike transitions to superconductivity, which happen as temperatures approach absolute zero, the insulating-to-conducting transition typically happens as temperature increases, and sometimes occurs near room temperature. That has raised hopes that metal oxides could be used instead of silicon to make transistors. A spate of results is now making that look feasible. “People are interested in seeing if oxides can make it to applications,” says Manuel Bibes, a physicist at the Joint Physics Unit in Palaiseau, France, which is run by the French National Research Center and electronics company Thales.

Metal oxide transistors have the potential to consume less power than silicon switches, because the phase transition frees electrons from their localized state near each atom, without moving them through the bulk material. By contrast, silicon switches work by pulling electrons through the material to a channel where they conduct current (see ‘Go with the flow’).

Read more: Metal Oxide Chips Show Promise as Transistors: Scientific American.

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