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U.S. Department of Energy awards $4 million to Argonne National Laboratory for energy-efficient microchip research

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Newswise — While the microchips inside electronic devices like cell phones and computers are incredibly small, transistors — the tiny electrical switches inside microchips — are getting closer to the atomic level. Current microchips contain more than 100 million transistors in a surface area the size of a pinhead.

Despite their almost unimaginable size, the total number of these microelectronic devices consume a lot of energy, which grows exponentially. Forecasts indicate that 20% of global energy could be consumed by microelectronics by 2030.

“It is only recently that microelectronics have begun to use a large part of the Earth’s electricity. This is an urgent problem. The Department of Energy is committed to finding energy-efficient solutions that will flatten the demand curve for electricity used by microelectronics. — Jeffrey Elam, director of the Atomic Layer Deposition Research Program at Argonne

To avoid this crisis, new transistors, materials and manufacturing processes must be developed to create microchips with very low energy consumption. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $4 million to DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory to fund research that will use atomic layer deposition (ALD) to advance new materials and devices to create microchips that consume up to 50 times less energy than current chips.

Scheduled to launch in early 2024, the project – which will last two and a half years – is funded by the DOE Office of Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies’ Energy Efficient Scaling for Two Decades (EES2) program. Argonne will partner with Stanford University, Northwestern University and Boise State University on the project. Argonne Distinguished Scholar Jeffrey Elam, who founded and directs Argonne’s groundbreaking ALD research program, will lead the research team.

“Only recently have microelectronics started to use much of the Earth’s electricity,” Elam said. “This is an urgent problem. DOE is committed to finding energy-efficient solutions that will flatten the demand curve for electricity used by microelectronics.

Advanced technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) explosion, accelerates the rate at which energy is used in computing. AI applications analyze huge amounts of data and consume large amounts of electricity. As AI becomes more widespread, the enormous data centers that power these applications will face significant energy increases. The proliferation of “smart” devices and their data requirements are also increasing electricity consumption.

“Computers today spend more than 90 percent of their energy shuttling between memory and logic functions, which exist on separate chips,” Elam said. “This limitation is known as the ‘von Neumann bottleneck’. The energy used to move data is wasted as heat. As computing demand increases, we must develop transistors and chips low-consumption electronics to overcome this bottleneck and avoid an energy crisis.

The project grew out of the activities of Argonne’s laboratory-led research and development program and a project funded by the DOE Office of Science. Spinning is a research program that applies co-design to develop neuromorphic devices and terahertz interconnects that will create high-performance detectors for high-energy physics and nuclear physics.

Using Atomic Layer Deposition to Rethink the Microchip

Argonne is a pioneer in ALD, a thin film deposition technique widely used in the manufacturing of microelectronic products. ALD produces extremely thin layers – just one atom thick – to manufacture microelectronic components with high precision. These films are considered 2D because they have length and width, but essentially no thickness. A wide variety of thin films can be prepared by ALD on complex 3D substrates.

“Atomic layer deposition is an ideal technology for making ultra-low-power electronic components,” said Elam, a researcher at ALD for more than 20 years. This makes ALD attractive for uses including lithium-ion batteriessolar cells, catalysts and detectors.

In this project, Argonne scientists will use ALD to redesign the microchip and eliminate the back-and-forth of data. Scientists want to bridge the gap between the microprocessor, or “brain,” and memory chips. 3D integrated circuits can stack layers of memory and logic on top of each other, like a pancake. This could potentially reduce energy consumption by 90%.

Currently, silicon is the semiconductor material used to make memory chips and microprocessors, but the 3D integration required for layer stacking is extremely difficult to achieve with silicon. Semiconductors control electrical currents.

To overcome this limitation, researchers are developing an alternative 2D semiconductor material, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), to replace silicon. Building on Previous Research, Argonne Scientists Use ALD to Create Atomically Precise MoS2 movies. “We can create extremely thin 2D MoS2 leaves. These sheets will replace the bulky 3D silicon thin films used in current transistors. This leaves more room on the chip to stack memory and logic efficiently, significantly reducing power,” Elam said.

New electronic devices increase energy efficiency

Argonne, in collaboration with Boise State University, developed ALD methods to create 2D MoS2 movies. The team will demonstrate the use of MoS2 to create 2D semiconductor field-effect transistors (2D-FETs) that can be stacked in 3D. FETs are conventional transistors but are based on 2D rather than 3D materials. This method allows the integration of memory and logic functions not possible with silicon.

Simultaneously, Argonne Scientists Demonstrate Use of ALD MoS2 in memtransistors, electronic components used to build neuromorphic circuits. Neuromorphic circuits mimic the connections between neurons in the brain to create microchips that use much less power. This technology is relatively new. But neuromorphic circuits have the potential to use a million times less energy than conventional silicon devices.

2D FETs and memtransitors have been successfully demonstrated at laboratory scale by developing MoS2 at high temperatures. Argonne scientists want to take the technology to the next level. Commercial manufacturing will require MoS2 place on large pizza-sized slices at low temperature. In this DOE project, the research team will develop these capabilities to ensure that the MoS2 ALD is compatible with current semiconductor manufacturing processes. This is crucial to accelerate the integration of this technology into future semiconductors.

Scientists from partner institutions will use their unique expertise to advance specific areas of the project. Professor Eric Pop of Stanford University will develop 2D-FET devices, Professor Mark Hersam of Northwestern University will develop memtransistors that use ALD MoS.2, and Professor Elton Graugnard of Boise State University will perform advanced characterization of ALD MoS2 coatings to assess the quality of materials.

Alongside experimental work, Argonne uses modeling and simulation to design energy-efficient devices incorporating ALD MoS.2. This work will leverage high-performance computers at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility at Argonne, to model and simulate circuits integrating 2D materials. The computers will measure power savings and compare their performance to current silicon technologies. The researchers seek to advance the stacked devices toward pilot-scale demonstration, with the goal of commercializing them for commercial use by the microelectronics industry. The project represents a new facet of Argonne’s growing research and development portfolio using ALD technology to address a wide variety of energy challenges.

The Argonne team also includes physicist Moinuddin Ahmed, senior materials scientist Angel Yanguas-Gil, computer scientist Xingfu Wu, assistant computer scientist Sandeep Madireddy, and senior materials scientist Anil Mane. The project builds on Argonne’s extensive work advancing science and technology to create the next generation of microelectronics. Alongside innovations in microelectronics and energy-efficient architectures, scientists are developing new approaches for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly microelectronics manufacturing.

The Argonne Leadership IT Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding across a wide range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts cutting-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state, and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership, and prepare for the nation to a better future. With employees from more than 60 countries, Argonne is led by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the US Department of Energy Office of Science.

US Department of Energy Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and strives to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.



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