Chip discovery could lead to huge energy savings

Monday, 15 January, 2007

The University College London (UCL) has unearthed a major discovery in the manufacture of microchips.

The Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering has succeeded in using nanotechnology techniques to induce the oxidation of silicon at room temperature using light from ultraviolet excimer lamps, instead of high-temperature furnaces.

Chip manufacturers currently use energy-intensive furnaces, heated to more than 1000°C, to make the material. The new technique operates at room temperature and therefore requires less power and fewer resources.

Microchips are composed of complex electrical circuits made of a variety of silicon components, such as transistors. A transistor is a basic electronic switch. Every chip needs large numbers of them, sometimes hundreds of millions to function. The more there are, the more calculations they can do.

The oxidation process creates the natural skin, or oxide coating, that grows on silicon, and is hugely beneficial in microelectronics. It is a first-rate insulator and in electrical applications it can protect the silicon, store electrical charge, block electrical current and even act as a controlled pathway to allow small currents to flow through a device.

The coating typically grows extremely slowly at room temperature. To manufacture chips, the oxide is grown by deliberately heating the silicon in high-temperature furnaces at temperatures of 900-1200°C. The breakthrough at UCL means that these furnaces could be made redundant, radically reducing the amount of energy consumed during the silicon manufacturing process.

The research, led by Professor Ian Boyd, course director for UCL''s new MSc in nanotechnology, means that future chips could be produced in a more energy-efficient and cost-effective way.

The discovery also opens fresh possibilities for using light instead of heat to fabricate advanced electronic devices, as well as creating the opportunity to realise new materials with unique properties.

"Our finding has the potential to completely overhaul the way that the microelectronic industry processes silicon. Silicon chips are used in thousands of devices, from high-tech electronics, such as PCs and personal media players, to everyday items like washing machines and alarm clocks," Boyd said.

"This finding means that the industry''s energy, and subsequent cost savings, could reduce the prices of electronic devices for consumers and, of course, create a positive environmental impact."

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