Silicene to Supersede Graphene in Computer Processors?

May 18, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

Silicene-based transistors could provide the next big leap in computer processor performance, new research from Europe suggests, and could surpass graphene after silicon reaches its performance peak.

Silicon transistors are tiny switches that alternate between on and off states, representing either 0 or 1—the binary language of computers. Millions of these perform complex calculations in current processors, but computers with silicene transistors could operate hundreds of times faster.

The researchers describe silicene as “the graphene equivalent for silicon” in their paper. Graphene is the most highly conductive material known, conducting electrons at much faster speeds than silicon.

However, graphene transistors won’t be along any time soon due to the lack of a band gap to enable switching. Researchers have managed to artificially introduce a band gap to graphene in lab conditions only.

Materials like silicon have a small band gap and are known as semiconductors, while those with a large one are known as insulators.

When voltage is applied to a semiconductor, the band gap is closed enough for electrons to jump across. When insufficient voltage exists, electrons cannot cross, effectively creating an on-off switch.

Silicene comes with a band gap plus the desirable electronic characteristics of graphene and the big advantage of being compatible with present fabrication processes.

A silicene semiconductor sheet features a buckled honeycomb structure in which a few atoms are arranged above and below a main sheet, which acts as a gap. When voltage is applied, electrons can jump across the gap created by the main sheet.

The team has confirmed the material’s existence with a scanning tunneling electron microscope, after growing it on a silver substrate. Though more compatible with present manufacturing processes than graphene, it will still be some time in the future when silicene can be considered ready.

The findings were published in the journal Physical Review Letters in April.

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