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#86: Silicon’s Next Wave

A re-worked form of silicon may be the next smallest, fastest thing in computer chip design.

By Stephen OrnesDecember 29, 2011 6:00 AM


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Electronics engineers are constantly seeking the next great thing, the supermaterial that will allow for devices even smaller and faster than are possible with silicon chips. But research from this year has convinced some people that silicon’s successor may be none other than silicon itself—reinvented for the 21st century.

Its new form, called silicene, consists of a sheet of silicon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. “Some scientists did not think silicene could exist,” says physicist Guy Le Lay of the University of Provence, in Marseille, France, who led one of two teams that forged the material in the lab. He and his colleagues grew silicene on a layer of metal, while researchers from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology independently devised a way to produce the material on a ceramic base.

Silicene is a cousin of graphene, a sheet of carbon atoms that has gained attention recently. In graphene, electrons skate across the surface 100 times as fast as in standard silicon. Le Lay has found that electrons in silicene behave the same way, and silicon might be easier to manufacture. It could eventually lead to devices like smartphones that are much thinner and faster than today’s.

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