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Nanoelectronics February 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Silicon-Compatible Photonic Devices

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Photonic computing exhibits clear advantages over more conventional systems. Recent research advances demonstrate clear progress in integrating optical devices with silicon—a first step toward the commercialization of this hybrid technology.

Description

In October 2017, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published the results of their research into the development of novel, ultrathin materials for optical computing and optical-communication applications. The scientists found that two-dimensional molybdenum ditelluride is chemically compatible with silicon, thus addressing one of the key technological barriers facing researchers in this field while potentially also smoothing the way to any eventual commercial applications. An additional barrier faced by scientists looking to integrate optical applications with silicon infrastructure originates from the fact that silicon absorbs the light emitted by most semiconductors (which emit in the visible-light range). Molybdenum ditelluride, however, emits in the infrared, resulting in no losses in signal strength when in use in conjunction with silicon substrates. An additional motivation behind the development of molybdenum ditelluride is the desire to tackle the "interconnect bottleneck"—the phenomenon of signal leakage between components on a chip that results from their dense packing. Using photonic systems rather than electronic ones would reduce such leakage. The MIT team is now looking to tweak the emission wavelength of the material (from 1,100 nanometers [nm] to either 1,300 or 1,500 nm) in order to match the two main wavelengths in use in optical-telecoms applications.

Implications

This development addresses several challenges currently facing the fields of nano- and optoelectronics, providing a viable means of fabricating high-performance light sources and photodetectors that are compatible with silicon-based architectures. The choice of material highlights the increasing importance of the two-dimensional family of nanomaterials across a wide range of applications. Indeed, the researchers are also investigating other two-dimensional materials. For example, the emission characteristics of black phosphorus are controllable through altering the number of layers of the material deposited on a substrate. However, despite the promise, this research remains at a developmental stage and will require significant amounts of additional work before any potential commercialization.

Impacts/Disruptions

Photonic computing promises improved speeds and enhanced energy efficiency in comparison with those of conventional silicon-based systems. Consequently, in the long term, this technology could prove highly disruptive to the semiconductor industry—one of the most commercially mature (and socially entrenched) sectors. Conventional computing techniques are fast approaching their physical limitations, which will serve as only a further driver to the adoption of optical alternatives. However, given the ubiquity of silicon technology and the trillions of dollars invested in its development to date, a more likely short- to medium-term outcome will be the integration of photonic systems with existing silicon-based infrastructure. The recent MIT results go some way to accelerating the realization and commercialization of hybrid optoelectronic computing systems.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Computing, optoelectronics, integrated circuit, telecoms

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Flexible Electronics

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

The field of flexible electronics is on the verge of making a significant commercial breakthrough. Recent developments demonstrate the commercial potential that this technology has across a number of industrial sectors and consumer markets.

Description

In September 2017, scientists from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Ohio and Harvard University's Wyss Institute published the results of their research into the use of 3D printing to produce flexible electronic devices. The researchers print a silver ink on a flexible polyurethane substrate before depositing standard electronic components such as chips and transistors to contact the silver areas, completing the electrical circuit. Prototype devices prepared using this technique—which the researchers call "hybrid 3D printing"—successfully function when stretched by up to 30%. Stretching causes the resistivity of the silver ink to alter, enabling use as sensors. Indeed, devices developed to date using the technique include pressure sensors and joint flexion detectors.

Also in the field of flexible electronics, in July 2017 researchers from Chalmers University of Technology published the results of their research into the use of graphene in flexible terahertz detectors (sensors that can detect light in the terahertz range, between high-frequency microwave and infrared wavelengths). This proof-of-concept device—the first terahertz detector to employ graphene as the active material—could find use in a number of applications, from wearable electronics and medical imaging to wireless communication and security infrastructure.

Implications

The AFRL/Harvard development has the potential to accelerate the production and adoption of low-cost wearable devices—a market that is set to expand rapidly in the coming years. Beyond use in wearables, the technology could also find use in, for example, soft robotics or biomedical devices. However, the current limitations of flexible-battery technology pose a significant barrier to commercialization—the unique selling point of flexible electronics becomes immaterial if devices require rigid sources of power.

Graphene—as a result of its electrical and mechanical properties—could be a perfect material for flexible terahertz detectors. Prohibitively high costs currently limit the use of these devices to relatively high-end applications, such as airport-security scanners. However, the ability to fabricate inexpensive and flexible alternatives opens up a wide range of novel applications, enabling the technology to penetrate new markets.

Impacts/Disruptions

As the field of flexible electronics develops, it will likely have a significant impact on day-to-day lives, potentially transforming how people interact with technology. For example, such devices could find use in a variety of health applications, from continuous monitoring of a variety of body outputs to optimizing of patient physical rehabilitation. The majority of these applications are likely to fall under the category of "wearable electronics"—a market that is only now becoming possible as a result of technological advances. Within this emerging market for wearable electronics, significant commercial opportunities are also likely to exist for products tailored to meet individual consumers' requirements, potentially leading to entirely new (and lucrative) applications as well as innovative takes on existing ones.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics, health, defense, sensor, automotive, robotics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: