Editorial Feature

Can Graphene Change the Semiconductor Industry?

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Like most groundbreaking discoveries, the exploration and commercial use of graphene and carbon nanotubes is taking a significant time for its development, refinement and experimentation to be completed1,2. Ever since its initial discovery at the University of Manchester in 2004, graphene has remained in the spotlight, particularly in both the semiconductor and electronics industries. Although graphene is thinner than a single strand of human hair, it has been shown to exhibit a strength that is 300 times greater than that of steel3. Since 2004, over 25,000 patents based on graphene have been filed; a number that is only expected to continue to grow1. While this may be true, the widespread use of graphene in the semiconductor industry has a few shortcomings, some of which include the quest for industrial methods capable of mass producing graphene, coating and transferring procedures, as well as maintaining that are prices comparable to silicon, its counterpart material.

Graphene has great potential as a next-generation semiconductor material as a result of its exceptional properties, such as its high mobility that has been shown to be up to 250 times higher than that of silicon, low loss requirements, small scale and flexibility1. Graphene switches could not be turned off without proper band-gap engineering; therefore, the puzzle of its band-gap limitation needs to be solved prior to its commercial use. Another significant problem that hinders the ability of industries to explore the full potential of graphene is its compatibility with the complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) devices1. Considering the recent progress in the research performed on exploring the full potential of graphene, the future for graphene-based semiconductor industry remains promising.

Is the End Near for the Silicon Wave?

Silicon is the primary semiconductor material used in a variety of technologies ranging from simple electronics to disruptive and transformational technologies, advanced analytics, augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, digital and internet of things1. The innovations related to the use of silicon in electronics has kept pace with the technological advancements of this industry for past few decades; however, silicon-based semiconductors may not be able to meet the growing performance demand for the latest generation of electronics including computers, tablets and smartphones. In order to achieve adequate performance gains, semiconductor companies are spending as much as 150% in research and development1. In fact, capital costs for manufacturing equipment have increased by approximately $2 billion USD since the industry transitioned to multipatterning1. The plodding performance improvements in the silicon industry is therefore leading to pricing pressures1.

Since the innovations in the use of silicon have almost reached the material’s physical limitations (e.g., node length is approaching the conducting channel width where performance is severely inhibited), it is unlikely that the silicon industry can continue to grow at the previous growth rate that it has maintained over the last few decades1. Therefore, viable alternatives for silicon is necessary for making next-generation semiconductor-based electronics that could offer superior power and performance1.

The Search for the Silicon’s Heir

Although the semiconductor industries are experimenting with different materials including silicene, germanene and black phosphorous, two dimensional (2D) materials, such as graphene, are believed to have the greatest potential in this field1. More specifically, graphene’s electrical properties and exceptional flexibility properties make it an extraordinary next-generation semiconductor material that can be used in battery technologies, touch screens for tablets, smartphones and even various types of wearable devices.

The Scope of Graphene in the Semiconductor Industry

The eventual replacement of silicon with graphene is expected to occur in three phases:

  1. Enhancing the properties of silicon
  2. Replacing silicon with graphene
  3. Revolutionizing electronics

To prevent diffusion into the interconnects, 14 nanometer (nm) tantalum nitride metal barriers are being currently used1. Over the next several years, researchers anticipate the replacement by graphene of existing protective outer layer materials because, at just one eighth the size of the currently used materials including ruthenium or cobalt, graphene is expected to significantly improve the reliability and performance of interconnects with 30% higher speeds1. ­

Assuming that a solution to overcome graphene’s band gap limitations will arise in the near future, graphene could, in theory, replace silicon as the primary semiconductor material in electronics that require high speed, low loss requirements, small-scale and flexibility. Graphene’s market is estimated to be approximately $190 billion USD across a wide range of areas including data processing, wireless communications and consumer electronics1.

References

  1. Graphene: The next S-curve for semiconductors?” – McKinsey & Company
  2. Carbon Nanomaterials Could Disrupt the Multi-Billion Dollar Semiconductor Industry, But They’re Stuck in R&D Limbo” – CV Insights
  3. Graphene will change the world: this is how it can be used” – Verdict

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.

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