Materials science rescues civilization, again

Read a bunch of articles this past week from MIT Technology Review, How materials science will determine the future of human civilization, from Stanford University, New ultra thin semiconductor materials…, and Wired, This battery breakthrough could change everything.

The message varied a bit between articles but there was an underlying theme to all of them. Materials science was taking off, unlike it ever has before. Let’s take them on, one by one, last in first out.

New battery materials

I have not reported on new battery structures or materials in the past but it seems that every week or so I run across another article or two on the latest battery technology that will change everything. Yet this one just might do that.

I am no material scientist but Bill Joy has been investing in a company, Ionic Materials, for a while now (both in his job as a VC partner and as in independent invested) that has been working on a solid battery material that could be used to create rechargeable batteries.

The problems with Li(thium)-Ion batteries today are that they are a safety risk (lithium is a highly flammable liquid) and they use an awful lot of a relatively scarce mineral (lithium is mined in Chile, Argentina, Australia, China and other countries with little mined in USA). Electric cars would not be possible today with Li-On batteries.

Ionic Materials claim to have designed a solid polymer electrolyte that can combine the properties of familiar, ultra-safe alkaline batteries we use everyday and the recharge ability of  Li-Ion batteries used in phones and cars today. This would make a cheap, safe rechargeable battery that could work anywhere. The polymer just happens to also be fire retardant.

The historic problems with alkaline, essentially zinc and manganese dioxide is that they can’t be recharged too many times before they short out. But with the new polymer these batteries could essentially be recharged for as many times as Li-Ion today.

Currently, the new material doesn’t have as many recharge cycles as they want but they are working on it. Joy calls the material ional.

New semiconductor materials

Moore’s law will eventually cease. It’s only a question of time and materials.

Silicon is increasingly looking old in the tooth. As researchers shrink silicon devices down to atomic scales, they start to breakdown and stop functioning.

The advantages of silicon are that it is extremely scaleable (shrinkable) and easy to rust. Silicon rust or silicon dioxide was very important because it is used as an insulator. As an insulating layer, it could be patterned just like the silicon circuits themselves. That way everything (circuits, gates, switches and insulators) could all use the same, elemental material.

A couple of Stanford researchers, Eric Pop and Michal Mleczko, a electrical engineering professor and a post doc researcher, have discovered two new materials that may just take Moore’s law into a couple of more chip generations. They wrote about these new materials in their paper in Science Advances.

The new materials: hafnium diselenide and zirconium diselenide have many similar properties to silicon. One is that they can be easily made to scale. But devices made with the new materials still function at smaller geometries, at just three atoms thick (0.67nm) and also consume happen less power.

That’s good but they also rust better. When the new materials rust, they form a high-K insulating material. With silicon, high-K insulators required additional materials/processing and more than just simple silicon rust anymore. And the new materials also match Silicon’s band gap.

Apparently the next step with these new materials is to create electrical contacts. And I am sure as any new material, introduced to chip fabrication will take quite awhile to solver all the technical hurdles. But it’s comforting to know that Moore’s law will be around another decade or two to keep us humming away.

New multiferric materials

But just maybe the endgame in chip fabrication materials and possibly many other domains seems to be new materials coming out of ETH Zurich Switzerland.

There a researcher, Nicola Saldi,n has described a new sort of material that has both ferro-electric and ferro-magnetic properties.

Spaldin starts her paper off by discussing how civilization evolved mainly due to materials science.

Way in the past, fibers and rosin allowed humans to attach stone blades and other material to poles/arrows/axhandles to hunt  and farm better. Later, the discovery of smelting and basic metallurgy led to the casting of bronze in the bronze age and later iron, that could also be hammered, led to the iron age.  The discovery of the electron led to the vacuum tube. Pure silicon came out during World War II and led to silicon transistors and the chip fabrication technology we have today

Spaldin talks about the other major problem with silicon, it consumes lots of energy. At current trends, almost half of all worldwide energy production will be used to power silicon electronics in a couple of decades.

Spaldin’s solution to the  energy consumption problem is multiferric materials. These materials offer both ferro-electric and ferro-magnetic properties in the same materials.

Historically, materials were either ferro-electric or ferro-magnetic but never both. However, Spaldin discovered there was nothing in nature prohibiting the two from co-existing in the same material. Then she and her compatriots designed new multiferric materials that could do just that.

As I understand it, ferro-electric material allow electrons to form chemical structures which create electrical dipoles or electronic fields. Similarly, ferro-magnetic materials allow chemical structures to create magnetic dipoles or magnetic fields.

That is multiferric materials can be used to create both magnetic and electronic fields. And the surprising part was that the boundaries between multiferric magnetic fields (domains) form nano-scale, conducting channels which can be moved around using electrical fields.

Seems to me that if this were all possible and one could fabricate a substrate using multi-ferrics and write (program) any electronic circuit  you want just by creating a precise magnetic and electrical field ontop of it. And with todays disk and tape devices, precise magnetic fields are readily available for circular and linear materials. And it would seem just as easy to use multi multiferric material for persistent data storage.

Spaldin goes on to say that replacing magnetic fields in todays magnetism centric information/storage industry with electrical fields should lead to  reduced energy consumption.

Welcome to the Multiferric age.

Photo Credit(s): Battery Recycling by Heather Kennedy;

AMD Quad Core backside by Don Scansen;  and

Magnetic Field – 14 by Windell Oskay