Ferroelectric semiconductors are a promising technology that could bridge the gap between conventional computing and next-generation architectures. The ability to sustain an electrical polarization sets them apart from other semiconductors, making them ideal for expanding artificial intelligence and sensing capabilities, as well as enabling batteryless devices. This is crucial for the Internet of Things (IoT) which powers smart homes, identifies problems with industrial systems, and alerts people to safety risks, among other things.
Recently, a team at the University of Michigan has made a breakthrough in ferroelectric technology by making these semiconductors just five nanometers thick, a span of just 50 or so atoms. This paves the way for integrating ferroelectric technologies with conventional components used in computers and smartphones. “This will allow the realization of ultra-efficient, ultra-low-power, fully integrated devices with mainstream semiconductors,” said Zetian Mi, U-M professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-corresponding author of the study. “This will be very important for future AI and IoT-related devices.”
Ferroelectric semiconductors can switch which end is positive and negative, making them ideal for sensing light and acoustic vibrations, as well as harvesting ambient energy. This property can also be used for a different way of storing and processing both classical and quantum information. The two electrical polarization states can serve as the one and zero in computing, making it ideal for supporting AI algorithms that process information through neural networks. Storing energy as electrical polarization requires less energy than traditional memory storage methods, making it more energy-efficient and longer-lasting.
The team achieved this breakthrough with a technique called molecular beam epitaxy, which is the same approach used to make semiconductor crystals for CD and DVD players. By precisely controlling every layer of atoms in the ferroelectric semiconductor and minimizing losses of atoms from the surface, they were able to lay down a crystal 5 nanometers thick. “By reducing the thickness, we showed that there is a high possibility that we can reduce the operation voltage,” said Ding Wang, a research scientist in electrical and computer engineering and first author of the study. “This means we can reduce the size of the devices and reduce the power consumption during operation.”
In addition, the nanoscale manufacturing improves the researchers’ ability to study the fundamental properties of the material, discover the limits of its performance at small sizes, and possibly open the way to its use in quantum technologies due to its unusual optical and acoustic properties. “With this thinness, we can really explore the miniscule physics interactions,” said Ping Wang, U-M research scientist in electrical and computer engineering. “This will help us to develop future quantum systems and quantum devices.”
In conclusion, the University of Michigan’s breakthrough in making ferroelectric semiconductors just five nanometers thick is a significant development in the field of computing. This could revolutionize the way we store and process information, make devices more energy-efficient, and open up new possibilities for the development of quantum systems and devices. It’s exciting to think about what other breakthroughs will come from this research in the near future.