Friday, September 27, 2013

A first: Stanford engineers build computer using carbon nanotube technology

A team of Stanford engineers has built a basic computer using carbon nanotubes, a semiconductor material that has the potential to launch a new generation of electronic devices that run faster, while using less energy, than those made from silicon chips

This unprecedented feat culminates years of efforts by scientists around the world to harness this promising material.
The achievement is reported today in an article on the cover of Nature magazine written by Max Shulaker and other doctoral students in electrical engineering. The research was led by Stanford professors Subhasish Mitra and H.S. Philip Wong.
"People have been talking about a new era of  electronics moving beyond silicon," said Mitra, an electrical engineer and computer scientist, and the Chambers Faculty Scholar of Engineering. "But there have been few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof."

Experts say the Stanford achievement will galvanize efforts to find successors to , which could soon encounter physical limits that might prevent them from delivering smaller, faster, cheaper electronic devices.
"Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have long been considered as a potential successor to the ," said Professor Jan Rabaey, a world expert on  and systems at UC Berkeley.
But until now it hasn't been clear that CNTs could fulfill those expectations.
"There is no question that this will get the attention of researchers in the semiconductor community and entice them to explore how this technology can lead to smaller, more energy-efficient processors in the next decade," Rabaey said.
Mihail Roco, senior advisor for Nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation, called the Stanford work "an important, scientific breakthrough."
It was roughly 15 years ago that carbon nanotubes were first fashioned into transistors, the on-off switches at the heart of digital electronic systems.
But a bedeviling array of imperfections in these carbon nanotubes has long frustrated efforts to build complex circuits using CNTs. Professor Giovanni De Micheli, director of the Institute of Electrical Engineering at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, highlighted two key contributions the Stanford team has made to this worldwide effort.
"First, they put in place a process for fabricating CNT-based circuits," De Micheli said. "Second, they built a simple but effective circuit that shows that computation is doable using CNTs."
As Mitra said: "It's not just about the CNT computer. It's about a change in directions that shows you can build something real using nanotechnologies that move beyond silicon and its cousins."
Why worry about a successor to silicon? Such concerns arise from the demands that designers place upon semiconductors and their fundamental workhorse unit, those on-off switches known as transistors.
For decades, progress in electronics has meant shrinking the size of each transistor to pack more transistors on a chip. But as transistors become tinier they waste more power and generate more heat – all in a smaller and smaller space, as evidenced by the warmth emanating from the bottom of a laptop.
Many researchers believe that this power-wasting phenomenon could spell the end of Moore's Law, named for Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore, who predicted in 1965 that the density of transistors would double roughly every two years, leading to smaller, faster and, as it turned out, cheaper electronics.
But smaller, faster and cheaper has also meant smaller, faster and hotter.
"Energy dissipation of silicon-based systems has been a major concern," said Anantha Chandrakasan, head of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and a world leader in chip research. He called the Stanford work "a major benchmark" in moving CNTs toward practical use. CNTs are long chains of carbon atoms that are extremely efficient at conducting and controlling electricity. They are so thin – thousands of CNTs could fit side by side in a human hair – that it takes very little energy to switch them off, according to Wong, co-author of the paper and the Williard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Professor at Stanford.
"Think of it as stepping on a garden hose," Wong said. "The thinner the hose, the easier it is to shut off the flow." In theory, this combination of efficient conductivity and low-power switching make carbon nanotubes excellent candidates to serve as electronic transistors.
"CNTs could take us at least an order of magnitude in performance beyond where you can project silicon could take us," Wong said. But inherent imperfections have stood in the way of putting this promising material to practical use.
First, CNTs do not necessarily grow in neat parallel lines, as chipmakers would like.
Over time, researchers have devised tricks to grow 99.5 percent of CNTs in straight lines. But with billions of nanotubes on a chip, even a tiny degree of misaligned tubes could cause errors, so that problem remained.
A second type of imperfection has also stymied CNT technology.
Depending on how the CNTs grow, a fraction of these carbon nanotubes can end up behaving like metallic wires that always conduct electricity, instead of acting like semiconductors that can be switched off.
Since mass production is the eventual goal, researchers had to find ways to deal with misaligned and/or metallic CNTs without having to hunt for them like needles in a haystack.
"We needed a way to design circuits without having to look for imperfections or even know where they were," Mitra said. The Stanford paper describes a two-pronged approach that the authors call an "imperfection-immune design."
To eliminate the wire-like or metallic nanotubes, the Stanford team switched off all the good CNTs. Then they pumped the semiconductor circuit full of electricity. All of that electricity concentrated in the metallic nanotubes, which grew so hot that they burned up and literally vaporized into tiny puffs of carbon dioxide. This sophisticated technique was able to eliminate virtually all of the metallic CNTs in the circuit at once.
Bypassing the misaligned nanotubes required even greater subtlety.
So the Stanford researchers created a powerful algorithm that maps out a circuit layout that is guaranteed to work no matter whether or where CNTs might be askew.
"This 'imperfections-immune design' (technique) makes this discovery truly exemplary," said Sankar Basu, a program director at the National Science Foundation.
The Stanford team used this imperfection-immune design to assemble a basic computer with 178 transistors, a limit imposed by the fact that they used the university's chip-making facilities rather than an industrial fabrication process.
Their CNT computer performed tasks such as counting and number sorting. It runs a basic operating system that allows it to swap between these processes. In a demonstration of its potential, the researchers also showed that the CNT computer could run MIPS, a commercial instruction set developed in the early 1980s by then Stanford engineering professor and now university President John Hennessy.
Though it could take years to mature, the Stanford approach points toward the possibility of industrial-scale production of carbon nanotube semiconductors, according to Naresh Shanbhag, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of SONIC, a consortium of next-generation chip design research.

'Accelerator on a chip' demonstrated

In an advance that could dramatically shrink particle accelerators for science and medicine, researchers used a laser to accelerate electrons at a rate 10 times higher than conventional technology in a nanostructured glass chip smaller than a grain of rice.

The achievement was reported today in Nature by a team including scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.
"We still have a number of challenges before this technology becomes practical for real-world use, but eventually it would substantially reduce the size and cost of future high-energy particle colliders for exploring the world of  and forces," said Joel England, the SLAC physicist who led the experiments. "It could also help enable compact accelerators and X-ray devices for security scanning, medical therapy and imaging, and research in biology and materials science."

Because it employs commercial lasers and low-cost, mass-production techniques, the researchers believe it will set the stage for new generations of "tabletop" accelerators.
At its full potential, the new "accelerator on a chip" could match the accelerating power of SLAC's 2-mile-long  in just 100 feet, and deliver a million more electron pulses per second.
This initial demonstration achieved an acceleration gradient, or amount of energy gained per length, of 300 million electronvolts per meter. That's roughly 10 times the acceleration provided by the current SLAC linear accelerator.
"Our ultimate goal for this structure is 1 billion electronvolts per meter, and we're already one-third of the way in our first experiment," said Stanford Professor Robert Byer, the principal investigator for this research.
Today's accelerators use microwaves to boost the energy of electrons. Researchers have been looking for more economical alternatives, and this new technique, which uses ultrafast lasers to drive the accelerator, is a leading candidate.
Particles are generally accelerated in two stages. First they are boosted to nearly the speed of light. Then any additional acceleration increases their energy, but not their speed; this is the challenging part.
In the accelerator-on-a-chip experiments, electrons are first accelerated to near light-speed in a conventional accelerator. Then they are focused into a tiny, half-micron-high channel within a fused silica  just half a millimeter long. The channel had been patterned with precisely spaced nanoscale ridges. Infrared laser light shining on the pattern generates electrical fields that interact with the electrons in the channel to boost their energy. (See the accompanying animation for more detail.)

Turning the accelerator on a chip into a full-fledged tabletop  will require a more compact way to get the electrons up to speed before they enter the device.
A collaborating research group in Germany, led by Peter Hommelhoff at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, has been looking for such a solution. It simultaneously reports in Physical Review Letters its success in using a laser to accelerate lower-energy electrons.
Applications for these new  would go well beyond particle physics research. Byer said laser accelerators could drive compact X-ray free-electron lasers, comparable to SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source, that are all-purpose tools for a wide range of research.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Growing Thin Films of Germanium

Researchers have developed a new technique to produce thin films of germanium crystals -- key components for next-generation electronic devices such as advanced large-scale integrated circuits and flexible electronics, which are required for gadgets that move or bend.

Unlike conventional methods, the new approach does not require high temperatures or other crystals to act as seeds to grow the germanium crystal. And, the researchers say, the new method can be used to produce germanium films with a very large area, allowing for more potential applications.
"This is the realization of the dreams of crystal-growth researchers," says Taizoh Sadoh of Kyushu University. "This unique method will open new ways to create advanced flexible electronics."
Sadoh is an author of the paper describing the new work, which appears in the AIP Publishing journal Applied Physics Letters.
Charged particles move through germanium more readily than they do through silicon, making germanium a good material for electronics. In particular, it is a promising material for the thin-film transistors that are needed for flexible electronics. However, for use in flexible electronics, the germanium would have to be grown on malleable materials, which tend to soften at temperatures above 300° Celsius. The challenge, said Sadoh, is to grow germanium at lower temperatures.
Using gold as a catalyst, Sadoh and his colleagues were able to grow germanium crystals at a temperature of about 250° Celsius. They were also able to grow them in such a way that their crystal structure has the proper orientation and electrical properties necessary for technological applications.

Scientists Demonstrate World's Fastest Graphene Transistor; Holds Promise for Improving Performance of Transistors

In a just-published paper in the magazine Science, IBM researchers demonstrated a radio-frequency graphene transistor with the highest cut-off frequency achieved so far for any graphene device -- 100 billion cycles/second (100 GigaHertz).

This accomplishment is a key milestone for the Carbon Electronics for RF Applications (CERA) program funded by DARPA, in an effort to develop next-generation communication devices.
The high frequency record was achieved using wafer-scale, epitaxially grown graphene using processing technology compatible to that used in advanced silicon device fabrication.
"A key advantage of graphene lies in the very high speeds in which electrons propagate, which is essential for achieving high-speed, high-performance next generation transistors," said Dr. T.C. Chen, vice president, Science and Technology, IBM Research. "The breakthrough we are announcing demonstrates clearly that graphene can be utilized to produce high performance devices and integrated circuits."
Graphene is a single atom-thick layer of carbon atoms bonded in a hexagonal honeycomb-like arrangement. This two-dimensional form of carbon has unique electrical, optical, mechanical and thermal properties and its technological applications are being explored intensely.
Uniform and high-quality graphene wafers were synthesized by thermal decomposition of a silicon carbide (SiC) substrate. The graphene transistor itself utilized a metal top-gate architecture and a novel gate insulator stack involving a polymer and a high dielectric constant oxide. The gate length was modest, 240 nanometers, leaving plenty of space for further optimization of its performance by scaling down the gate length.
It is noteworthy that the frequency performance of the graphene device already exceeds the cut-off frequency of state-of-the-art silicon transistors of the same gate length (~ 40 GigaHertz). Similar performance was obtained from devices based on graphene obtained from natural graphite, proving that high performance can be obtained from graphene of different origins. Previously, the team had demonstrated graphene transistors with a cut-off frequency of 26 GigaHertz using graphene flakes extracted from natural graphite.

Scientists Use DNA to Assemble a Transistor from Graphene

Graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arrayed in a honeycomb pattern, just a single atom thick. It could be a better semiconductor than silicon -- if we could fashion it into ribbons 20 to 50 atoms wide. 

DNA is the blueprint for life. Could it also become the template for making a new generation of computer chips based not on silicon, but on an experimental material known as graphene?
That's the theory behind a process that Stanford chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao reveals in Nature Communications.
Bao and her co-authors, former post-doctoral fellows Anatoliy Sokolov and Fung Ling Yap, hope to solve a problem clouding the future of electronics: consumers expect silicon chips to continue getting smaller, faster and cheaper, but engineers fear that this virtuous cycle could grind to a halt.
Why has to do with how silicon chips work.
Everything starts with the notion of the semiconductor, a type of material that can be induced to either conduct or stop the flow of electricity. Silicon has long been the most popular semiconductor material used to make chips.
The basic working unit on a chip is the transistor. Transistors are tiny gates that switch electricity on or off, creating the zeroes and ones that run software.
To build more powerful chips, designers have done two things at the same time: they've shrunk transistors in size and also swung those gates open and shut faster and faster.
The net result of these actions has been to concentrate more electricity in a diminishing space. So far that has produced small, faster, cheaper chips. But at a certain point, heat and other forms of interference could disrupt the inner workings of silicon chips.
"We need a material that will let us build smaller transistors that operate faster using less power," Bao said.
Graphene has the physical and electrical properties to become a next-generation semiconductor material -- if researchers can figure out how to mass-produce it.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. Visually it resembles chicken wire. Electrically this lattice of carbon atoms is an extremely efficient conductor.
Bao and other researchers believe that ribbons of graphene, laid side-by-side, could create semiconductor circuits. Given the material's tiny dimensions and favorable electrical properties, graphene nano ribbons could create very fast chips that run on very low power, she said.
"However, as one might imagine, making something that is only one atom thick and 20 to 50 atoms wide is a significant challenge," said co-author Sokolov.
To handle this challenge, the Stanford team came up with the idea of using DNA as an assembly mechanism.
Physically, DNA strands are long and thin, and exist in roughly the same dimensions as the graphene ribbons that researchers wanted to assemble.
Chemically, DNA molecules contain carbon atoms, the material that forms graphene.
The real trick is how Bao and her team put DNA's physical and chemical properties to work.
The researchers started with a tiny platter of silicon to provide a support (substrate) for their experimental transistor. They dipped the silicon platter into a solution of DNA derived from bacteria and used a known technique to comb the DNA strands into relatively straight lines.
Next, the DNA on the platter was exposed to a copper salt solution. The chemical properties of the solution allowed the copper ions to be absorbed into the DNA.
Next the platter was heated and bathed in methane gas, which contains carbon atoms. Once again chemical forces came into play to aid in the assembly process. The heat sparked a chemical reaction that freed some of the carbon atoms in the DNA and methane. These free carbon atoms quickly joined together to form stable honeycombs of graphene.
"The loose carbon atoms stayed close to where they broke free from the DNA strands, and so they formed ribbons that followed the structure of the DNA," Yap said.
So part one of the invention involved using DNA to assemble ribbons of carbon. But the researchers also wanted to show that these carbon ribbons could perform electronic tasks. So they made transistors on the ribbons.
"We demonstrated for the first time that you can use DNA to grow narrow ribbons and then make working transistors," Sokolov said.
The paper drew praise from UC Berkeley associate professor Ali Javey, an expert in the use of advanced materials and next-generation electronics.
"This technique is very unique and takes advantage of the use of DNA as an effective template for controlled growth of electronic materials," Javey said. "In this regard the project addresses an important research need for the field."
Bao said the assembly process needs a lot of refinement. For instance, not all of the carbon atoms formed honeycombed ribbons a single atom thick. In some places they bunched up in irregular patterns, leading the researchers to label the material graphitic instead of graphene.
Even so, the process, about two years in the making, points toward a strategy for turning this carbon-based material from a curiosity into a serious contender to succeed silicon.
"Our DNA-based fabrication method is highly scalable, offers high resolution and low manufacturing cost," said co-author Yap. "All these advantages make the method very attractive for industrial adoption."
The experiment was supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Program.

GaN on silicon collaboration looks to cut cost, boost device performance

Belgian nanoelectronics research centre imec and US based process equipment specialist Veeco Instruments are collaborating on a project aimed at lowering the cost of producing GaN on silicon based power devices and leds.

Barun Dutta, imec's chief scientist, explained: "The productivity, repeatability, uniformity and crystal quality of Veeco's metal organic chemical vapour deposition (MOCVD) equipment has been instrumental in helping us meet our development milestones on GaN on Si for power and led applications. The device performance enabled by the epi has helped us realise state of the art depletion mode and enhancement mode power devices. Our goal is to establish an entire manufacturing infrastructure that allows GaN on Si to be a competitive technology."

Jim Jenson, general manager of Veeco's MOCVD operations, commented: "We have been working with imec on this program since 2011 and are encouraged by our progress. Our work is mutually rewarding: we are both focused on being able to realise lower costs while maintaining world class performance on GaN on Si devices.

"This technology can be used to create lower cost LEDs that enable solid state lighting, more efficient power devices for applications such as power supplies and adapters, PV inverters for solar panels, and power conversion for electric vehicles."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Power converters maximise smartphone battery life

The first rf power converters to integrate the MIPI Alliance's RFFE digital control interface have been unveiled by Texas Instruments.
The LM3263 buck converter and LM3279 buck-boost converter are designed to reduce the heat and power consumption in rf power amplifiers, improving battery life and extending talk time in 2G, 3G and 4G LTE smartphones, tablets and data cards.

The 2.5A LM3263 has been optimised to meet the stringent rf requirements of multi-mode, multi-band power amplifiers with fast output voltage transients.

The device also includes active current assist and bypass to minimise inductor size without loss of output regulation. TI says this results in a 10mm2 solution, which is half the size of competing solutions.

The 1A LM3279 supports fast output voltage transients for 3G and 4G LTE. The device enables the amplifier to support high output power and high data rates, even at low battery voltages.

ARM buys advanced display technology from Cadence

Cadence has sold its PANTA display controller cores to ARM.
The high resolution display processor and scaling coprocessor IP cores were developed in conjunction with ARM and are targeted at advanced multimedia applications for high end mobile devices with ultra low power consumption.

"Display technology is critical to the mobile consumer's user experience," said Pete Hutton, executive vice president and general manager of ARM's media processing division. "The addition of the PANTA family of display cores to the ARM product portfolio will help our ecosystem of partners get to market quickly with high end displays that are fully integrated with ARM's leading Mali graphics and video solutions and protected with ARM TrustZone security."

Martin Lund, senior vice president of Cadence's IP group, added: "ARM and Cadence work together closely on many levels, including IP integration, verification IP for all ARM AMBA protocols, and high performance design solutions optimized for ARM cores. As a result, both companies offer more tightly integrated solutions to our mutual customers."