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Nanoelectronics July 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Optical Room-Temperature Transistor

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

Why is this topic significant?

As computers carry out increasing volumes of ever-more-complex calculations and current silicon-based technology reaches its physical limitations, novel computing techniques will be necessary to keep up with this demand. Recent research represents a significant step forward for the commercial prospects of photonic computing—one technique vying to enable the next generation of computing technology.

Description

In March 2019, researchers from IBM—in collaboration with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, the University of Southampton, and the Bergische Universität Wupperta—published the results of their research into the first room-temperature all-optical transistor. The consortium fabricated an optical cavity between two highly reflective mirrors, demonstrating the possibility of switching on and off or amplifying an incoming laser beam with another laser beam—thereby creating the transistor. The modulation of the laser takes place in a 35-nanometer-thick layer of an organic semiconducting polymer: methyl-substituted ladder-type poly(para-phenylene). In addition to being the first light-based transistor to function at room temperature, the device also amplifies the optical signal by 6,500 times—an unprecedented level of amplification that is 330 times larger than that achievable with inorganic components that can also support cascadability (a form of amplification, which is necessary for the eventual use of the transistor in logic gates). Additional impressive characteristics of the device include a world-record net optical gain for an optical transistor (of approximately 10 decibels/micrometer) and fast switching (in the subpicosecond [10–12 seconds] range). This switching speed enables frequencies that are comparable with those of other all-optical devices, without the additional requirement of cumbersome and expensive cryogenic cooling.

Implications

This development could represent a significant step forward on the path to commercialization for optical computing. In particular, removing the requirement for cryogenic cooling lowers the cost of using optical-transistor technology, makes the use of the technology substantially more convenient, and enables optical-transistor systems to find use in applications beyond academic research or highly specialized industrial situations. This research is also a particularly good example of the drive toward devices based on increasingly small elements and lower energy consumption within the field of photonics. Such advances are necessary if optical-transistor technology is one day to compete with established electronic technologies that continue to benefit from decades of additional research and trillions of dollars of investment. Competitive devices based on optical-computing techniques will lead to computers that support significantly faster processing and enable other emerging technologies such as quantum computing. However, room-temperature optical-transistor research remains at a relatively fundamental level and will require additional investment of both time and money for a period of several years before it will be able to compete with the current state of the art.

Impacts/Disruptions

Photonic devices have the potential to enable hitherto unimagined computing speeds and the further miniaturization of commercially available products. However, all-optical devices remain a distant prospect, and a more likely short- to medium-term outcome will be hybrid devices that make use of the complex and well-established infrastructure that currently exists in the semiconductor industry while also introducing the superior performance of photonic systems. Such hybrids could pave the way for the gradual introduction of devices that rely to an increasing extent on photonic elements.

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

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Battery Developments

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

Why is this topic significant?

Although uptake of electric vehicles is gaining pace, low ranges and long charge times are two of the key reasons that they are not yet dominating the automotive market. Recent research into solid-state batteries that could address both these concerns represents a significant step forward within this field and has the potential to drive increasing numbers of consumers toward fully electric products.

Description

In June 2019, Imec published a press release relating to recent advances in the field of battery research by the EnergyVille consortium—a group that includes the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research, and Hasselt University. The consortium demonstrated a solid-state lithium-metal battery cell that exhibits an energy density of 400 watt-hours per liter. The battery also possesses an extremely high conductivity of 10 millisiemens per centimeter. These values represent a record combination for a solid-state battery. The innovation comes through the use of a solid electrolyte that researchers at first apply as a liquid using wet chemical techniques. The liquid solidifies after it comes into contact with the electrodes and already fills all the cavities—thus maximizing electrical contact and, therefore, electrode efficiency. In a bid to advance the commercialization of this technology, the consortium is currently upscaling the materials and processes in a 300-square-meter assembly pilot line. In its press release, Imec also stated that it intends to "surpass wet Li-ion battery performance and reach 1,000Wh/L by 2024."

Implications

The EnergyVille team's work represents a significant step forward for solid-state rechargeable lithium-ion- (Li-ion-) battery technology. As batteries with liquid electrolytes reach the limits of their capabilities, alternative technologies that enhance energy density (such as that under development at Imec) will be necessary to drive battery-based applications such as electric vehicles (EVs). The Imec technology possesses a significant advantage over competing technologies in that its application would not require a significant overhaul of existing manufacturing infrastructure—thus eliminating a significant barrier for any future industrial uptake. Setting up a pilot line also goes some way to both demonstrating the consortium's confidence in the commercial potential of the technology and enabling the improvement of technical characteristics in a setting that more closely matches any eventual volume-manufacturing process.

Impacts/Disruptions

The most obvious initial application for this technology lies in the EV sector, with every improvement in battery technology making these cars more attractive to consumers who remain to be convinced that these vehicles are an economically viable option. However, switching from batteries that use liquid electrolytes to fully solid-state batteries would represent a significant shift within this industry, and several questions must have answers before the full adoption of solid-state lithium-ion technology. For example, the researchers must first prove that it is possible to mass-produce the batteries at an affordable price, that the complete battery packs are sufficiently compact to fit within a standard electric vehicle, and that the time necessary to fully recharge the battery is not off-putting for potential consumers.

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

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Automotive, consumer electronics, energy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: