New quantum material could make computer processors a whole lot faster

23 Aug 2018

Image: archy13/Shutterstock

A material that has fascinated the semiconductor industry for years has been tweaked to create a whole new material with exciting properties.

If we want computers to process greater amounts of information at fantastic speeds, then we will need the hardware to match.

To that end, a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota has revealed a new material it has developed that could both improve the processing and memory power of the latest computers.

In a paper published to Nature Materials, the team said it had used a quantum material that has attracted a lot of attention among the semiconductor industry in the past few years, but tweaked it just a bit. What resulted was a material with new physical and spin-electronic properties that could be a game-changer for the industry.

A surprise discovery

Explaining it further, the researchers said the new material is in a class called ‘topological insulators’, typically created using a single-crystal growth process.

Increasingly studied among physics and materials research groups, the team began its research in this area with bismuth selenide (Bi2Se3), a compound of bismuth and selenium.

The researchers then used a thin-film deposition technique called ‘sputtering’, similar to what happens in existing semiconductor production processes.

However, this was the first time it has been used to create a topological insulator material that could be scaled up for semiconductor and magnetic industry applications.

Its power came as a surprise to the researchers, with the nano-sized grains (smaller than six nanometres) in the insulator layer changing the behaviour of the electrons in the material. In fact, testing showed it to be 18 times more efficient than existing processing and memory hardware.

“As the size of the grains decreased, we experienced what we call ‘quantum confinement’ in which the electrons in the material act differently, giving us more control over the electron behaviour,” said the study’s co-author, Tony Low.

The team said this is only the beginning and that this discovery could open the door to more advances in the semiconductor industry as well as related industries, such as magnetic random access memory (MRAM) technology.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic