Liquid Metal Circuits and Atomic Microchips Could Be the Future of Electronics

A new nano printing technique using graphene creates integrated circuits that are just atoms thick, and could lead to huge advances in speed and power.

In recent years, scientists have been very interested indeed about the concept of two-dimensional materials, sometimes called 2D materials or single-layer materials. As the name suggests, these are structures so thin - down to a single layer of atoms - that they've functionally abandoned the third dimension altogether.

The single-layer variant of carbon known as graphene is the rock star of this particular class of materials, which chemical engineers hope will power the next generation of super-small semiconductors. The tricky part is getting these atomically skinny two-dimensional materials to "plug in" to traditional three-dimensional manufacturing systems.

News out of Australia this week is pointing things in an interesting direction by incorporating liquid metals and a kind of nanoscale version of rust.

Research published today in the journal Nature Communications describes a new technique for creating integrated circuits that are just a few atoms in thickness. The process could potentially allow microchip companies to manufacture circuit wafers as thin as 1.5 nanometers. How skinny is that? Pretty skinny. Consider that a standard sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

"This is a truly revolutionary development," said lead researcher Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, in an email exchange from his offices at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. "Our idea will be one of the first steps toward translation of the 2D world into real electronic technologies."

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The specifics get complicated indeed - quantum physics are involved - but the essential gist is this: The new technique leverages certain atomic properties of metals with a relatively low melting point - gallium and indium, if you're keeping score at home. These metals naturally form a thin layer of oxide on their surface when in an oxygenated environment. This oxide, a kind of nanoscale variation of rust, can then be transferred onto a pre-treated electronic wafer, creating individual transistors.

"We use nature itself to form atomically thin, self-limiting oxides with no extra manipulation," Kalantar-zadeh said. "It is the force of nature that produces them perfectly and with no ripples and steps. Because the technology comes from the simplest observation in nature, it will impact technologies very rapidly as it is simple, understandable, and easy to implement."

And just in time, too, according to Kalantar-zadeh, who believes the process represents the next big advance for electronics.

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"The fundamental technology of car engines has not progressed since 1920 and now the same is happening to electronics," he said in a statement accompanying the research publication. "Mobile phones and computers are no more powerful than five years ago.

"That is why this new 2D printing technique is so important - creating many layers of incredibly thin electronic chips on the same surface dramatically increases processing power and reduces costs. It will allow for the next revolution in electronics."

Kalantar-zadeh, distinguished professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT, collaborated on the project with researchers from CSIRO, Monash University, North Carolina State University and the University of California.

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