How to mass-produce chips only 3 atoms thick

(Credit: Getty Images)

A recent demonstration proves it might be possible to mass-produce chips only three atoms thick.

“What if your window was also a television, or you could have a heads-up display on the windshield of your car?”

Why would this be useful? Because such thin materials would be transparent and flexible as well, in ways that would enable electronic devices that wouldn’t be possible to make with silicon.

“What if your window was also a television, or you could have a heads-up display on the windshield of your car?” asks Kirby Smithe, a graduate student at Stanford University who worked on the project.

Smithe and colleagues have been working to develop a manufacturing process to turn single-layer chips into practical realities.

First there was graphene

The first atomically thin material was measured in 2004 when scientists observed that graphene—a material related to the “lead” in pencils—could be isolated in layers the thickness of a single carbon atom. The scientists who made this finding shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

But the process used to make that discovery—the scientists lifted layers of graphene off a rock using sticky tape—was of no use in turning ultrathin crystals into next-generation electronics.

In the wake of the graphene discovery, engineers embarked on a quest to find similar materials and, more importantly, practical ways to fashion atomically thin switches into circuits.

1 second in the microwave makes high-quality graphene

It is on the issue of manufacturability where the Stanford team members made a big advance. They started with a single layer of material called molybdenum disulfide. The name describes its sandwich-like structure: a sheet of molybdenum atoms between two layers of sulfur. Previous research had shown that molybdenum disulfide made a good switch, controlling electricity to create digital ones and zeroes.

25 million times wider than it is thick

The question was whether the team could manufacture a molybdenum disulfide crystal big enough to form a chip. That requires building a crystal roughly the size of your thumbnail. This may not sound like a big deal until you consider the aspect ratio of the crystal required: a chip just three atoms thick but the size of your thumbnail is like a single sheet of paper big enough to cover the entire Stanford campus.

The team manufactured that sheet by depositing three layers of atoms into a crystalline structure 25 million times wider than it is thick. Smithe achieved this by making refinements to a manufacturing process called chemical vapor deposition.

etched nanoscale image of Stanford tree
Researchers etched a nanoscale image of the Stanford tree onto an ultrathin chip, using the same technique that could one day create electronic circuits. (Credit: Pop Lab)

This approach essentially incinerates small amounts of sulfur and molybdenum until the atoms vaporize like soot. The atoms then deposit as an ultra-thin crystalline layer on a “handle” substrate, which can be glass or even silicon.

The job wasn’t done

They still had to pattern the material into electrical switches and to understand their operation. For this, they made use of a recent advance led by graduate student Chris English, who discovered that extremely clean deposition conditions are essential to form good metallic contacts with the molybdenum disulfide layers.

The wealth of new experimental data available now in the lab has also enabled graduate student Saurabh Suryavanshi to craft accurate computer models of the new materials and to begin predicting their collective behavior as circuit components.

“We have a lot of work ahead to scale this process into circuits with larger scales and better performance,” says team leader Eric Pop, an electrical engineering associate professor. “But we now have all the building blocks.”

During chip manufacturing, circuits must be etched into the material. To demonstrate how a large-scale, single-layer chip manufacturing process might perform this step in the future, the team used standard etching tools to cut the Stanford logo into their prototype.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, and the Stanford SystemX Alliance supported the project.

Source: Stanford University