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Tin could be the next super material for computer chips

Nov. 21, 2013 at 5:15 PM   |   Comments

PALO ALTO, Calif., Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The humble metal tin could form the world's first material to conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency in computer chips, U.S. researchers say.

A single layer of tin atoms could be a super material with electrical properties holding promise for a wide range of applications, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reported Thursday.

Researchers have dubbed the new material "stanene," combining the Latin name for tin -- stannum -- with the suffix used in graphene, a material with similar useful electrical properties.

"Stanene could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computer chips, if our prediction is confirmed by experiments that are under way in several laboratories around the world," team leader and Stanford physics Professor Shoucheng Zhang said.

Zhang and colleagues have been researching a special class of materials known as topological insulators, which conduct electricity only on their outside edges or surfaces and not through their interiors.

When topological insulators are just one atom thick, their edges can conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency.

"The magic of topological insulators is that by their very nature, they force electrons to move in defined lanes without any speed limit, like the German autobahn," Zhang said. "As long as they're on the freeway -- the edges or surfaces -- the electrons will travel without resistance."

Their calculations indicated a single layer of tin atoms would be a topological insulator at and above the temperatures where computer chips normally operate.

Such a material could be used in wiring that connects the many sections of a microprocessor, allowing electrons to flow freely and significantly reduce the power consumption and heat production of microprocessors, the researchers said.

"Eventually, we can imagine stanene being used for many more circuit structures, including replacing silicon in the hearts of transistors," Zhang said. "Someday we might even call this area Tin Valley rather than Silicon Valley."

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