Grappling With Graphene

Industry tries to figure out when the newest “it” material will ride to low power design’s rescue?


By Brian Fuller
Silicon CMOS is a tough act to follow. The workhorse building block for the world’s electronics has been delivering for system designers for a half century. Despite hand-wringing over its apparent scalability limits, it shows only vague signs of slowing down.

For nearly as many years, it seems, the next great material or alternative to silicon CMOS has popped into the industry’s consciousness promising to be the next big thing—next year. Gallium arsenide, for example, has been next year’s hit technology for four decades.

The latest “it” material, however, could actually deliver on its early hype, and in the process enable the industry not only to continue scaling but to drive deep into previously unexpected depths of low-power design. Graphene—the two-dimensional crystalline form of carbon—first emerged as a term in the late 1980s and gained traction in 2004 when researchers at the University of Manchester extracted graphene layers from graphite—basically using Scotch tape—and then placing on silicon dioxide on a silicon wafer.

This time it’s different (maybe)
The material exhibited fantastic characteristics, including high electron mobility compared to silicon, twice the storage capacity of ultracapacitors, and it was rugged to boot. What’s more, its characteristics apparently remain stable down to the molecular level, unlike other materials used in semiconductor design. The graphene promise is such that in just the past three years, research papers are being written on graphene at the rate of one a day.

“There are two features that make graphene exceptional,” Kirill Bolotin, assistant professor in the Vanderbilt Department of Physics and Astronomy, said in a recent interview. “First, its molecular structure is so resistant to defects that researchers have had to hand-make them to study what effects they have. Second, the electrons that carry electrical charge travel much faster and generally behave as if they have far less mass than they do in ordinary metals or superconductors.”

Where some see glowing walls made of graphene circuitry and other exotic applications, people like James Meindl see an answer to scaling. Keynoting at the recent ISSCC (International Solid State Circuits Conference) in San Francisco, Meindl, director of the Joseph M. Pettit Microelectronics Research Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said: ”We will continue to scale vigorously for the next 15 years. Beyond silicon microchip technology, revolutionary developments in nanoelectronics, perhaps centering on graphene, may evolve.”

That’s music to the ears of many who, despite CMOS’s dogged determination, seeing scaling hitting a wall in the next decade.

“Look at Intel’s roadmap. They’re looking at 4nm in 2022,” said Michael Keating, a Synopsys Fellow. “As long as they’re charging down that road, graphene’s going to be a second-class citizen. But my guess is 2022 is not realistic for 4nm. Silicon will be seriously in trouble in that decade.”

“The reason graphene’s interesting is so much progress has been made in such a short time frame,” he added.

What’s all the fuss?
Graphene—a one-atom-thick planar sheet of sp2-bonded carbon atoms that resembles chicken wire—has a lot going for it.

Meindl, speaking at ISSCC, gave a half-dozen reasons graphene is going to win in the marketplace, including:

• No other known material has a higher mechanical strength-to-weight ratio.
• Carrier mobility exceeds 200,000-cm2/Vs.
• The capacity to conduct current densities as large as one thousand times greater than copper without electromigration.
• Graphene can serve as a source, channel drain regions of a field effect transistor (FET) and as an interconnect.

In addition to all the big talk, there’s been action.
• Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. has developed a method to form graphene transistors directly on the entire surface of large-scale insulating substrates at low temperatures while employing popular chemical-vapor deposition (CVD) techniques.
• IBM in 2007 fabbed graphene field-effect transistors (FETs) using a single layer of carbon atoms atop a silicon wafer at its T.J. Watson Research Center at Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
• In February, IBM built, on 2-inch wafers, RF graphene transistors running at 100-GHz and operating at room temperature.
• At around the same time, Penn State researchers announced they have developed a way to fabricate graphene sheets on 4-inch wafers.
• Last year, Bolotin, working with colleagues at Columbia University, managed to get graphene to exhibit the fractional quantum Hall effect, where the electrons create new particles with electrical charges that are a fraction that of individual electrons, according to work published in the journal Nature.
• A venture-backed Austin, Texas, company, Graphene Energy, is working to commercialize graphine for energy storage.
• Javad Rafiee, a doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed a method of ultra-efficient hydrogen storage based on graphene. His approach stores hydrogen with 14 percent efficiency, better than any other material attempted to date.

What’s the catch?
There’s always a catch. While graphene is easier to manufacture than its cousin, the carbon nanotube, it’s no slam dunk yet. To date, there hasn’t been a simple way to create the p- and n-type devices required for CMOS transistors. But Georgia Tech recently reported it has used an electron beam doping process that simplifies the transistor manufacture.

In addition, graphene has no band gap so there’s no way to turn them “off.” But even that hurdle is being brought down. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab last year engineered a controllable band gap in bilayer graphene—at room temperature.

When will we know when graphene gets the “next-year’s technology” monkey off its back for good?

Maybe relatively soon, suggested Synopsys’ Keating.
“CMOS has had an incredible run. It’s foolish to bet against CMOS. (But) graphene every year makes significant progress. It’s absolutely the promising thing right now. We’re a decade away.”