Addressing Energy Challenge

Melbourne, Dec 19: Australian researchers have discovered that negative capacitance could lower the energy used in electronics and computing, which represents eight per cent of global electricity demand.
The researchers at four universities within the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (Fleet) applied negative capacitance to make topological transistors switch at lower voltage, potentially reducing energy losses by a factor of ten or more.
These very promising results were reported at the recently concluded International Electron Devices Meeting held in San Francisco last week.

Explainer video supplied by Fleet.

While challenges remain to making a working benchtop device, the work has been covered in a patent application.
The millions of transistors inside modern electronics are only micrometres in size, their function mirrors that of the familiar three-legged transistors of 1970s radios and home electronics kits
A transistor is an electronic switch. It has three terminals, or connections; a voltage applied to the gate terminal controls the current which can flow between other two terminals (called the source and drain terminals).
“This is why your phone or laptop gets hot when you’re doing something that requires a lot of computations, such as processing a video,” Fleet researcher Prof Michael Fuhrer said.
All together, information communication and technology (ICT) consumes about eight per cent of global electricity supply –a staggering amount of electricity that is doubling every decade.
According to the Decadal Plan for Semiconductors released last year, the imbalance between rising energy demands of ICT and available energy will ‘strongly limit’ future growth in computing.
Today’s computer chips are all made of silicon, a semiconductor.

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Semiconductors are insulators, materials that normally don’t conduct electricity.
However, adding a bit of extra electrical charge to a semiconductor makes it conduct.
This ability of silicon to ‘switch’ on and off is the basis of the field-effect transistor (FET); the gate is connected by a capacitor to a slice of semiconductor running between source and drain terminals.
Instead of silicon, Fleet researchers are working with new kinds of quantum materials called topological insulators.
These materials are insulating in their interiors, but conduct electricity on their boundaries.
If they are three-dimensional then they conduct on their two-dimensional surfaces, and if they’re very thin (two-dimensional) they conduct along their one-dimensional edges.

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These researchers have also found that an electric field can be used to switch a material from topological insulator which conducts electricity along its edges to a normal insulator that doesn’t conduct at all.
This allows a topological material to be used as a transistor, called a topological quantum field-effect transistor (TQFET).
Besides reporting the results at the International Electron Devices meeting, the team has also applied for a patent on the NC-TQFET concept, and are looking for opportunities to work with suitable partners to develop the technology further.

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