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Fastest ever semiconductor could massively speed up computer chips

A “superatomic” material has become the fastest semiconductor known and could lead to computer chips that are hundreds or thousands of times speedier than anything available today.

The silicon semiconductors used in transistors in computer chips rely on the flow of electrons to transmit data, but these particles tend to scatter wildly, wasting energy in heat and slowing the time taken for data to get from A to B.

Now, Milan Delor at Columbia University in New York and his colleagues have discovered a faster and more efficient semiconductor in a material with the chemical formula Re6Se8Cl2. It is made of rhenium, selenium and chlorine, but is a superatomic material, in which atoms form clusters yet still act like the original elements in some ways.

Particles called excitons actually move through this material more slowly than electrons do through silicon, but, crucially, they move in arrow-straight lines, so they cover similar distances far more quickly.

If a transistor that uses excitons rather than electrons could be made with this new material, then they would make it from one side of the transistor to the other without scattering, which would allow them to travel from A to B somewhere between 100 and 1000 times faster than electrons in a silicon chip.

“If you think about a gigahertz processor, currently, in principle, you could go to hundreds of gigahertz or maybe a terahertz in terms of switching speed of your transistor [with the new material],” says Delor. “In principle, we’ve predicted the performance gains to be huge.”

A working computer chip using this material is several decades away, says Delor. Engineers have had decades to perfect silicon chip manufacturing techniques and switching to a new material would essentially send them back to square one. Rhenium is also one of the rarest elements in Earth’s crust – whereas silicon is the second most abundant – so chips made using Re6Se8Cl2 would probably be kept for niche applications such as spacecraft and quantum computers.

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