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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Quantum Materials Are Paving The Way For Next-Gen Electronics

  • The University of Minnesota team has successfully synthesized a thin film of a unique topological semimetal, a class of quantum materials with distinctive properties that are being explored for use in spintronic devices.
  • The researchers have utilized a patented, industry-compatible sputtering process to create this semimetal in a thin film format, thus enabling the technology to be more easily adopted for manufacturing real-world devices.
  • The high-quality material enabled researchers to closely examine its properties, confirming the presence of negative resistance, one of the material’s most fundamental properties.
Science

A University of Minnesota Twin Cities team has, for the first time, synthesized a thin film of a unique topological semimetal material. The material has the potential to generate more computing power and memory storage while using significantly less energy. The researchers were also able to closely study the material, leading to some important findings about the physics behind its unique properties.

The study paper has been published without a paywall at posting in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed scientific journal that covers the natural sciences and engineering.

A University of Minnesota Twin Cities team has, for the first time, synthesized a thin film of a unique topological semimetal material that has the potential to generate more power and memory storage in computer chips while using significantly less energy. Image Credit: University of Minnesota Twin Cities. For the largest image click the press release link.

As evidenced by the United States’ recent CHIPS and Science Act, there is a growing need to increase semiconductor manufacturing and support research that goes into developing the materials that power electronic devices everywhere. While traditional semiconductors are the technology behind most of today’s computer chips, scientists and engineers are always looking for new materials that can generate more power with less energy to make electronics better, smaller, and more efficient.

One such candidate for these new and improved computer chips is a class of quantum materials called topological semimetals. The electrons in these materials behave in different ways, giving the materials unique properties that typical insulators and metals used in electronic devices do not have. For this reason, they are being explored for use in spintronic devices, an alternative to traditional semiconductor devices that leverage the spin of electrons rather than the electrical charge to store data and process information. Related: Saudi Aramco Buys $3.4 Billion Stake In Chinese Petrochemical Firm

In this new study, an interdisciplinary team of University of Minnesota researchers were able to successfully synthesize such a material as a thin film – and prove that it has the potential for high performance with low energy consumption.

Jian-Ping Wang, a senior author of the paper and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F. Hartmann Chair in the University of Minnesota Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering explained, “This research shows for the first time that you can transition from a weak topological insulator to a topological semimetal using a magnetic doping strategy. We’re looking for ways to extend the lifetimes for our electrical devices and at the same time lower the energy consumption, and we’re trying to do that in non-traditional, out-of-the-box ways.”

Researchers have been working on topological materials for years, but the University of Minnesota team is the first to use a patented, industry-compatible sputtering process to create this semimetal in a thin film format. Because their process is industry compatible, Wang said, the technology can be more easily adopted and used for manufacturing real-world devices.

Andre Mkhoyan, a senior author of the paper and Ray D. and Mary T. Johnson Chair and Professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science deepened the explanation with, “Every day in our lives, we use electronic devices, from our cell phones to dishwashers to microwaves. They all use chips. Everything consumes energy. The question is, how do we minimize that energy consumption? This research is a step in that direction. We are coming up with a new class of materials with similar or often better performance, but using much less energy.”

Because the researchers fabricated such a high-quality material, they were also able to closely analyze its properties and what makes it so unique.

Tony Low, a senior author of the paper and the Paul Palmberg Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering added to the background with, “One of the main contributions of this work from a physics point of view is that we were able to study some of this material’s most fundamental properties. Normally, when you apply a magnetic field, the longitudinal resistance of a material will increase, but in this particular topological material, we have predicted that it would decrease. We were able to corroborate our theory to the measured transport data and confirm that there is indeed a negative resistance.”

Low, Mkhoyan, and Wang have been working together for more than a decade on topological materials for next generation electronic devices and systems meaning this research wouldn’t have been possible without combining their respective expertise in theory and computation, material growth and characterization, and device fabrication.

“It not only takes an inspiring vision but also great patience across the four disciplines and a dedicated group of team members to work on such an important but challenging topic, which will potentially enable the transition of the technology from lab to industry,” Wang said.

In addition to Low, Mkhoyan, and Wang, the research team included University of Minnesota Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering researchers Delin Zhang, Wei Jiang, Onri Benally, Zach Cresswell, Yihong Fan, Yang Lv, and Przemyslaw Swatek; Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science researcher Hwanhui Yun; Department of Physics and Astronomy researcher Thomas Peterson; and University of Minnesota Characterization Facility researchers Guichuan Yu and Javier Barriocanal.

***

Yes, this technology does look to augment and likely someday replace the silicon wafer technology of today. If you’ve read this far, then you’re on the path of what might be one of the next great things in economic history.

What is so intriguing is this technology is working down into the quantum universe for actual goods to be used in the economy. The optimism is based on reduced power needs and ever more increasing in computing power and memory density.

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While the tech is not immediately headed for mass markets, the big leap into a producible material has been made. There is a lot of research to go, but this technology is now made the crossing from idea to early reality.

***

This research is supported by SMART, one of seven centers of nCORE, a Semiconductor Research Corporation program, sponsored by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). T.P. and D.Z. were partly supported by ASCENT, one of six centers of JUMP, a Semiconductor Research Corporation program that is sponsored by MARCO and DARPA. This work was partially supported by the University of Minnesota’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) program under award number DMR-2011401 (Seed). Parts of this work were carried out in the Characterization Facility of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, which receives partial support from the National Science Foundation through the MRSEC (Award NumberDMR-2011401). Portions of this work were conducted in the Minnesota Nano Center, which is supported by the NSF Nano Coordinated Infrastructure Network (NNCI) under Award Number ECCS-2025124.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel 

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