Best semiconductor ever discovered? – SEE Magazine

Scientists have found a material with better electronic properties than silicon. Production still needs to be improved.

Silicon is the most abundant element on Earth. And the basis of all our electronics, from computers, radios and televisions to solar panels. But the semiconductor may have a serious competitor. Because researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Houston have discovered a substance that outperforms silicon: cubic borarsenide. The group led by Gang Chen writes about it in the trade journal science.

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‘holes’ and heat

Semiconductors are substances in the conduction of electrons between an insulator and a superconductor. They can do it a little, not very well. Ideal for electronics when combined with conductive elements in the right places (this is called ‘doping’).

But while silicon has been used in virtually every electronic device since the end of the last century, it has quite a few limitations. For example, while it can allow electrons to pass through where necessary, it is less able to handle so-called holes. Such a ‘hole’ is a positive charge that occurs when an electron is removed. These ‘holes’ are also important for the electronics to function correctly.

Furthermore, silicon is a poor conductor of heat. A laptop, for example, heats up quite quickly from operation and needs good cooling to prevent overheating. The electronics world has managed to ‘handle’ these limitations, but it is not ideal.

Higher score

So now Chen and his colleagues come up with a substance that could possibly be the ideal semiconductor for electronics. A few years ago they theoretically calculated that cubic borarsenide would have better electronic properties than silicon.

By using advanced ultrafast lasers, they have now also been able to confirm this experimentally. Boron arsenide scored slightly higher than silicon in electron and hole transport and at least ten times higher in heat dissipation.

Need years

It all sounds very nice, of course, but it is only about very small amounts of boronase anide that were mixed just uniformly enough to extract reliable data. The team’s task now is to figure out a way to increase production of the compound for larger testing.

Silicon had decades to rise to become the main ingredient in our electronic devices. Borarsenide will therefore take a few years to become a serious alternative. But the beginning may well be there.


“To be honest, I had never heard of cubic borarsenide,” says electrophysicist Ray Hueting of the University of Twente. “This is a eye opener. Mainly due to the fact that this substance apparently has good mobility values ​​for both electrons and holes. It is essential for the digital logic in the CMOS technology (used e.g. with screens, ed.) to function correctly.”

“The thermal conductivity is also very impressive; straight up to diamonds!” he continues. “But of course there are still many questions. For example, the effective mass or density of states in the electron bands is not yet known. Not only the mobility, but also these parameters are important for the current values. In any case, boron arsenide appears to have great potential as a semiconductor, but we are not there yet.”

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Electrophysicist Jan Kees Maan from Radboud University also finds the new semiconductor interesting, but is skeptical. “For decades, articles have been published announcing new materials as a ‘better alternative’ to silicon. But despite all its disadvantages, silicon has a huge technological advantage that overshadows all its disadvantages. Namely, that it is easy to oxidize, which makes for a good insulator. This aspect alone makes silicon unsurpassed in my opinion.”

Sources: Science, MIT via EurekAlert!

Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

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