A team of researchers has discovered what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology call “best semiconductor material ever found”, even better than silicon, the material used in most computer chips on earth.
In July, scientists from MIT, the University of Houston and other institutions announced they proved that cubic boron arsenide outperforms silicon in conducting heat and electricity, opening up new possibilities for smaller and faster chips. The team includes people born in China Professor Gang ChenMIT’s former dean of Mechanical Engineering, who was the subject of a year-long investigation by the Justice Department before the agency dropped espionage charges due to lack of evidence.
It could be decades before cubic boron arsenide-based semiconductors are used in commercial chips – if they prove viable. But ultimately, the new material could help designers push beyond the natural limits of current models to make better, faster, and smaller chips, and its discovery is the kind of research that the United States wants to know. Ky is in danger of missing out with a now-broken crackdown on experts like Chen.
Arsenide boron block
Despite its popularity in the chip industry, silicon is not the best semiconductor available. First, it’s a poor conductor of heat, which means chips and consumer devices often need to include expensive cooling systems or run the risk of overheating.
According to research in July, cubic boron arsenide conducts heat ten times better than silicon. Chen speak in a press release accompanying the study, calling the new material a “game changer”.
The study also revealed that cubic boron arsenide is better than silicon at conducting both electrons and its positively charged portion, the “electron hole”. The second is a particularly obvious weakness of silicon, limiting the speed of silicon-based semiconductors.
Chip designers are starting to fight the natural limits of silicon in search of smaller and faster chips. Researchers are openly talking about the end of Moore’s Lawpredicted 1975 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in a chip doubles every two years, which has been a guiding star for the semiconductor industry ever since.
Researchers are exploring ways to increase the speed of new computers through new material for chip or new technologies like quantum computing. Materials like cubic boron arsenide – assuming they can be commercialized – could help designers continue to make smaller and faster computer chips.
But there’s still a long way to go until cubic boron arsenide can be used outside the lab. According to MIT, the material is only produced in small quantities, and researchers need special equipment to study its properties.
“Silicon is the horse of the whole industry” Chen said in the release, notes that scientists have spent decades developing processes to refine silicon to the level required for chip manufacturing, reaching a purity of 99.999999999% aka ten-nine levels. . But Chen says that if future research can overcome barriers to industrial production, Block boron arsenide could become “a promising candidate for the next generation of electronics”.
The spy fee has been reduced
The study is also a significant change of fortune for one of its prominent authors, Chen, who was once a high-profile target of a Trump-era initiative to investigate allegations of espionage. of China.
The U.S. Department of Justice, through a program called the China Initiative, dozens of defendants American and Chinese scholars for concealing their ties to Chinese institutions to share advanced technology with Beijing.
Authorities arrest Chen, who was born in China and naturalized in the US in 2000, in January 2021. He is accused of not disclosing his ties to Chinese organizations in his application for funding to the Department of Energy. “This isn’t just about greed, it’s about loyalty to China,” then-Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling alleged at the time.
The scientific community, especially at MIT, has strongly criticized the arrest. The MIT faculty, in an open letter, write that “Professor Chen’s protection is the protection of the scientific enterprise we all hold dear – we are all Gang Chen.”
The Justice Department, under Biden’s administration, dropped the charges against Chen in January 2022 after DOE officials revealed that Chen was never required to disclose things he was accused of omitting. In a statement released when the charges were dropped, Chen accused The DOJ continues to bring “unwarranted fear to the academic community.”
A month after the removal of Chen’s case, the DOJ disbanded the China Initiative. “We helped give rise to the harmful perception that the department applied a lower standard to investigating and prosecuting crimes related to [China] or in a way, we view people with racial, ethnic or family ties to China differently,” speak Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen at the time.
The scientists also argue that investigations like the one against Chen have prevented academics – especially those from China – from moving to the US, denying the US the opportunity to benefit from research their. “It’s taking away talent,” said one MIT lecturer WBUR in February.
Experts have pointed out that the lack of skilled scientific and technical expertise is a key constraint on the US push to restore its prominence in research and development, including rebuilding the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry. One study estimated that the United States would need to increase its chip-making workforce by 50% to make Asia a hub for chip production — talent would need to come from abroad, including China.
Register Fortune feature email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews and surveys.