X-Ray Beams Bake in Ceramic Circuits
Computer chip trivet, cute.
CREDIT: oskay, via Flickr.
Stone Age secrets may soon unlock new power in Silicon Age devices.
In the hunt to find a material whose computer chip potential rivals silicon, researchers have discovered a way to "draw" superconducting circuits on ceramics using only an X-ray beam. The procedure relies on the precise induction of the same changes that happen in kiln-baked clay, bypassing the complex, toxin-heavy stages of chemical layering needed to make current electronics.
"In the olden days, our ancestors knew how to fire pots. In these days, we are learning how to fire things on the nano scale," said Gabriel Aeppli, the lead researcher on the project at University College, London. "Ceramics have been around as long as people have been around, since ancient history. In some ways this is a logical extension of pottery. Only now we're doing it on the nanoscale and the shininess corresponds to superconductivity. So we see this on the continuum on the history of mankind's relationship to ceramics."
Due to its highly malleable electronic properties , silicon has reigned as the material of choice for computing hardware for decades. To make the chips, engineers build up the circuits by laying chemicals into carved silicon wafers.
In this new ceramic process, exciting oxygen atoms inside ceramic causes the particles to move into a more ordered, crystalline pattern. Just as a clay pot becomes shiny, or undergoes a change in optical properties, when baked at a critical temperature, a ceramic wafer would undergo a change in electric properties when subjected to an X-ray scrawling highly precise circuit patterns on its surface.
"With firing, the thing is getting the right look for the pot. We're doing it on a nano scale with X-rays, whereas in the old days they did it with the whole pot," Aeppli told InnovationNewsDaily. "You can read and write very simply, without changing the chemical formula. In a normal integrated circuit , I make it by having the formulas change. What's simply happening here is I am changing the precise locations of oxygen atoms that are already there."
The demonstrated success of this manufacturing technique bodes well for the possibility of a low-cost silicon substitute. Evidence also suggests that the frozen arrangement can host a flow of charge with zero electrical resistance: superconductivity. As the coveted trait of a futuristic class of electronics , superconductivity allows systems to richly encode data as locations in a circle rather than as a binary 0 or 1. Resolution of a hundred states, rather than only two, would grant machines the "many, many, many orders of magnitude" needed to solve problems as difficult as degree temperature forecast for London and Bangkok a decade in advance.
Sheer computing power has traditionally advanced through breakthroughs involving shrinking the components of the silicon microchip. But physical limitations mean that silicon and silica are "really reaching the end of the road," Aeppli said, requiring new methods like these ceramic circuits. "We cannot shrink that technology much more so than we have so far."