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Revolutionizing Electronics with Coal-Derived Insulators

In an innovative shift within the semiconductor industry, a team of researchers has discovered a new use for coal, traditionally a fossil fuel. As reported by IEEE, they have successfully used coal to create ultra-thin insulating films, potentially paving the way for a new generation of semiconductors made from 2D materials. This breakthrough comes as the industry seeks alternatives to silicon, which has been the cornerstone of electronics for the past 70 years. The demand for smaller transistors, driven partly by the growing needs of machine learning and computational power, has expanded the search for alternative materials suitable for transistors and other computer chip components.

The Push Beyond Silicon in Semiconductor Design

Silicon-based semiconductors are reaching their physical limits, as the long-standing trend of Moore’s Law, which predicts the doubling of transistor density every two years, is nearing its end. Scientists are now exploring 2D semiconductors, such as graphene and molybdenum disulfide, for their ability to be incredibly thin and potentially more efficient. However, one of the major challenges in developing 2D semiconductors has been finding suitable insulating materials that can work effectively with them. Traditional metal oxides used with silicon don’t align well with the flat surface of 2D semiconductors, creating performance issues. Additionally, the crystalline nature of current 2D insulators has led to inefficiencies, pointing to the need for an amorphous (non-crystalline) and 2D insulator.

Coal's Potential in Future Semiconductor Production

The coal-derived material developed by the research team exhibits all the desired properties for effective use in 2D semiconductors. It is amorphous, thin, and integrates well with graphene and molybdenum disulfide semiconductors, showing improved performance over traditional insulators. The production process of this material involves converting coal into a fine powder, suspending it in a solution, and then depositing it into a thin film. This method allows for precise control, achieving layers just 1 to 2 atoms thick. The research also suggests that coal, being an abundant and cost-competitive material, offers a level of supply-chain security. The study's findings are not only academically intriguing but have also garnered interest from industry leaders like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., indicating potential practical applications in advanced processors. The team plans to focus future research on scaling up production of this coal-based insulating material.

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