Electronics

Tin-based stanene could conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency

Tin-based stanene could conduc...
As a one-atom thick topological insulator, stanene could conduct electricity at full efficiency at room temperatures (Image: Yong Xu/Tsinghua University; Greg Stewart/SLAC)
As a one-atom thick topological insulator, stanene could conduct electricity at full efficiency at room temperatures (Image: Yong Xu/Tsinghua University; Greg Stewart/SLAC)
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As a one-atom thick topological insulator, stanene could conduct electricity at full efficiency at room temperatures (Image: Yong Xu/Tsinghua University; Greg Stewart/SLAC)
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As a one-atom thick topological insulator, stanene could conduct electricity at full efficiency at room temperatures (Image: Yong Xu/Tsinghua University; Greg Stewart/SLAC)
If used as wiring in computer chips, the material, called "stanene," could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computers (Image: Brad Plummer/SLAC)
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If used as wiring in computer chips, the material, called "stanene," could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computers (Image: Brad Plummer/SLAC)

A team of theoretical physicists from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University is predicting that stanene, a single layer of tin atoms laid out in a two-dimensional structure, could conduct electricity with one hundred percent efficiency at room temperature. If the findings are confirmed they could pave the way for building computer chips that are faster, consume less power, and won't heat up nearly as much.

Stanene is an example of a topological insulator, a class of materials that conduct electricity only on their outside edges or surfaces. When topological insulators are just one atom thick, their edges conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency, forcing electrons to move in defined lanes, without resistance.

The team responsible for this work, led by Stanford physics professor Shoucheng Zhang, has studied several other structures which were later confirmed to be topological insulators, but if stanene is all they claim it is, then it would be a significant discovery because it would be the first topological insulator that is able to function at room temperature.

If used as wiring in computer chips, the material, called "stanene," could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computers (Image: Brad Plummer/SLAC)
If used as wiring in computer chips, the material, called "stanene," could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computers (Image: Brad Plummer/SLAC)

What's more, according to the team, when fluorine atoms are added into the atomic structures, the material could conduct electricity with perfect efficiency at temperatures as high as 100° C (210° F).

As with graphene, the main challenge in manufacturing such a material and testing its properties lies in producing sheets that are only a single atom thick. But if scientists can get past this hurdle, then its applications could be very exciting.

According to Zhang, a stanene-fluorine layer could be used to manufacture the internal electrical wiring of a microprocessor. This should vastly decrease the power consumption and heat production of computer chips, with a performance that exceeds that of the already promising graphene.

"Eventually, we can imagine stanene being used for many more circuit structures, including replacing silicon in the hearts of transistors," Zhang said.

A paper detailing the work appears in a recent edition of the journal Physical Review Letters.

Source: SLAC/Stanford University

16 comments
thk
That will be huge if superconducting could be accomplished without liquid nitrogen.
Slowburn
How flexible is the stuff room temperature superconductor would be tremendously useful outside of computers but only if it is flexible enough to be handled like aluminum wire.
Ian Bruce
This is incredible... tin's about 3 times the cost of copper, but you'd only need a fraction of it. This could revolutionize motors, batteries and power transmission. No resistance = no heat or line losses. Color me skeptical of anything that claims "100% efficiency", but if it is, I suppose it is.
Maybe it's time to start dusting off those patents that required room temperature superconductors. An "electric jet" may not be such a crazy idea after all.
Snake Oil Baron
Slowburn: "How flexible is the stuff room temperature superconductor would be tremendously useful outside of computers but only if it is flexible enough to be handled like aluminum wire."
Some currently marketed superconductors which need cooling are made flexible by layering them on a conductive--but not superconductive--tape so flexibility may not be too big an issue. Capacity may be though.
I notice that they are not using the term "superconductor", possibly to be conservative in their announcement. It is certainly an interesting development if it is verified experimentally and may have uses even if it doesn't make it as a true superconductor (however that is defined). But they will need to learn to produce it cheaply, which could take some time, and what arrangement is best to maximize the effect.
Piotr Ra
You seem to assume that there will be no current limit. If I understand correctly, there is current limit at which current superconductors stop being superconductors. I see no reason why this wouldn't be a case here. Probably that is the reason why uses in chips are mentioned, not uses in power transmision.
David Clarke
The article states that this substance only conducts electricity on its surface, but as it is only one atom thick, the surface is also the entire thickness of it. Atoms are three-dimensional, however small they are. Layers of the stuff could be stacked together, and would therefore appear to pass current through the entire thickness. Superconducting electric motors, here we come!
Chris Bonner
A sheet 1 atom thick probably has very little current capacity, hence the suggested applications in the article. I think layering sheets, which would presumably have to be seperated somehow, would be an even greater manufacturing challenge.
Francis Short
Cant imagine the type of smartphone you can have...
notarichman
how about a spiral "tube" to increase current capacity? would such a spiral have to have an insulator between layers? tensile strength of the stanene? decades ago a prof. at WSU did research on melting basalt rock and drawing through a hole for insulation purposes, but it also turned out to have 7 times tensile strength of steel...not very flexible though. maybe good for suspension bridge cables? but for power transmission it could work.
Synchro
I'm not sure that superconductors have any practical current limit - I recall seeing a superconducting coil thinner than a hair that could carry over 10,000 amps at Rutherford Appleton labs, and that was 30 years ago. Mind you, the uncooled, room-temperature end of the connections were bigger than me!
For internal on-chip wiring, no flexibility is required. You don't need high current either, but no resistance also means no heat generation, which could remove a massive obstacle to increasing CPU speeds. Off-chip connections have far less to gain by this since you can just use fat wires as space isn't an issue: your computer's speed is not limited in any practical way by the current carrying capacity of its internal cabling.
As far as manufacturing goes, they should probably be talking to the graphene people who have been trying to deal with the manufacturing side for some time.
Room-temperature superconductors have been around for decades too - the big breakthrough was really having them work well with liquid nitrogen, since that's dirt cheap compared to liquid helium. I've heard it said that cooling the whole energy grid with liquid nitrogen would have paid for itself in reducing heat loss many times over by now.