Scientists pioneer nano-scale devices to make electronics more energy efficient

21 Jan 2013

A team of scientists from Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork (UCC) and the National University of Singapore have designed and created ultra-small devices with the goal of making electronic devices, such as mobile phones, more energy efficient.

Dr Damien Thompson from Tyndall National Institute collaborated with a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore to create the devices, which are based on molecules acting as electrical valves.

By finding out how molecules behave in these devices, the scientists believe a ten-fold increase in switching efficiency was obtained by changing just one carbon atom.

They say the devices could provide new ways of tackling overheating in mobile phones and laptops, and could also help in the medical field in the electrical stimulation of tissue repair for wound healing.

Their findings are published in an advanced online edition of Nature Nanotechnology, with the full report set to appear in the February edition of the journal.

According to Thompson, these molecules are very useful because they allow current to flow through them when switched on and block current flow when switched off.

“The results of the study show that simply adding one extra carbon is sufficient to improve the device performance by more than a factor of 10. We are following up lots of new ideas based on these results, and we hope ultimately to create a range of new components for electronic devices,” he said.

According to Tyndall, Thompson’s atom-level computer simulations showed how molecules with an odd number of carbon atoms stand straighter than molecules with an even number of carbon atoms. This allows them to pack together more closely.

The research team at the National University of Singapore then formed tightly packed assemblies of these molecules on metal electrode surfaces.

The scientists believe that these devices can suppress leakage currents and operate efficiently and reliably. They said such devices can be switched on and off purely on the basis of the charge and shape of the molecules.

Tyndall’s Prof Jim Greer said electronic devices that are manufactured today, such as mobile phones and tablets, rely on tiny switches approaching molecular sizes.

“This provides new challenges for electronics but opens up exciting opportunities for blending molecular properties to be used to advantage. Dr Thompson’s work is an exciting new avenue to exploit molecular design to achieve new ways to perform information processing,” said Greer.

The Irish aspect of the study was funded by a Science Foundation Ireland ‘Starting Investigator’ award to Thompson. Computer simulations were carried out at the computing clusters at Tyndall and at the Irish Centre for High End Computing. 

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic