Researchers from the Graphene Flagship have demonstrated the "first" fully functional microprocessor based on a "layered" material. The processor chip consists of 115 integrated transistors and is a first step toward ultra-thin, flexible logic devices.
The Graphene Flagship is developing novel technologies based on graphene and related materials (GRMs) such as transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs), semiconductor materials that can be separated into ultra-thin sheets just a few atoms thick. Due to their thin, flexible nature and their electrical properties at compact dimensions, GRMs are promising for compact and flexible electronic devices.
Researchers from the Graphene Flagship, working at the TU Vienna in Austria, have designed and fabricated the first microprocessors based on GRMs. Using transistors made from the TMD molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), the microprocessors are capable of 1-bit logic operations and the design is scalable to multi-bit operations. With the drive towards smart objects and the Internet of Things, the microprocessors hold promise for integrating computational power into everyday objects and surfaces.
According to the researchers microprocessors are a central part of modern electronics, from watches to smartphones and supercomputers. Based on transistors, logic operations are performed through a series of input and output cycles, according to instructions stored in a memory unit.
However, modern microprocessors are based almost exclusively on silicon, but this technology cannot be made flexible.
The ultra-thin MoS2 transistors are inherently flexible and compact, so this result could be directly translated into fully flexible electronic devices, for example, wearable phones or computers, or for wider use in the Internet of Things.
The advantage of thin microprocessors means that low-powered computers could be integrated into everyday objects without adding bulk. The thinness of the MoS2 means that the transistors are highly responsive.
The MoS2 microprocessor is the most advanced circuitry made with GRMs so far. The devices were tested using simple programs, delivering the correct results with excellent signal quality and low power consumption. Compared to modern processors, which can have billions of transistors in a single chip, the 115-transistor devices are very simple. However, the researchers said it is very early stage for a new technology, and they have concrete plans for the next steps.
Figure: Graphene flagship - Device implementation using a 2D semiconductor
Improving the multi-stage design process will be an important step in developing high-yield production methods for the MoS2 microprocessors, since – among other factors – the transfer of large area, bi-layer MoS2 onto wafers was a significant source of device failure.
Silicon-based computing is a mature technology, and it is unlikely that GRMs will overtake silicon in the near future. However, achievements such as this demonstrate the potential for GRMs to enable new applications. This goal presents a challenge in terms of design and fabrication.
Thomas Mueller, who led the work at TU Vienna, said, "In general, being a flexible material there are new opportunities for novel applications. One could combine these processor circuits with light emitters that could also be made with MoS2 to make flexible displays and e-paper, or integrate them for logic circuits in smart sensors."
Stefan Wachter, a researcher at TU Vienna and first author of the work, said, "Adding additional bits of course makes everything much more complicated. For example, adding just one bit will roughly double the complexity of the circuit."
Daniel Neumaier, from AMO, Germany, is the Leader of the Graphene Flagship Electronics and Photonics Integration Division, which aims to use the excellent properties of GRMs to enable new technologies in computing and telecommunications, said, "The transition from single devices to complex integrated circuits is a very critical milestone for the application of a specific technology, because it requires a high level of process control and reproducibility. This is a step towards the application of GRM-based electronic devices, especially in smart sensor systems and for flexible electronics."
Andrea Ferrari from the University of Cambridge, UK, the Science and Technology Officer of the Graphene Flagship, and Chair of its Management Panel, said, "This simple circuit is a first conceptual step towards the implementation of simple logic in flexible devices for everyday use, such as food packaging or textiles." Andrea added, "The goal is not to compete head on with the established silicon technology, but to fill those complementary gaps not yet enabled by it."
Stefan Wachter | Dmitry K. Polyushkin | Ole Bethge | Thomas Mueller
Nature Communications 8 | Article number: 14948 (2017) | doi:10.1038/ncomms14948
Received: 14 October 2016 | Accepted: 15 February 2017 | Published online: 11 April 2017