Although modern microelectronics are capable of performance and speed that is far beyond what we could have imagined only decades ago, they’re currently not operating at peak efficiency. The biggest bottlenecks can be found within the very materials used to manufacture such devices and, in particular, the semiconductors that have been so crucial to the functionality of nearly all microelectronics.

However, a team with the University of California San Diego may have just solved that problem by developing the world’s first semiconductor-free, optical microelectronic architecture. Their initial product, though incredibly simplified compared to what a full-scale manufacture would look like, features an engineered metasurface that rests atop a silicon sector or wafer. A layer of silicon dioxide separates the two surfaces.

Understanding the Solution

The engineering team with UC San Diego came up with a novel method of eliminating the need for microelectronic semiconductors. Spearheaded by Dan Sievenpiper, electrical engineering professor and leader of the university’s Applied Electromagnetics Group, the young engineers were able to utilize electrons floating in free space as opposed to hardwired, physical semiconductors.

Devising a plan to replace traditional semiconductors was only the first half of the challenge. Because their process requires high levels of voltage, advanced lasers or extremely high temperatures, the free-electron framework of the design simply wouldn’t fit within the form factor of mainstream microelectronic hardware.

As a workaround, the team created a highly specialized appliance that is capable of forcing the release of electrons without having to meet such stringent temperatures. By utilizing a pair of gold nano-arrays, engineers were able to heat specific areas to facilitate the process and mimic the necessary conditions.

Developing the Technology to a Full-Scale Application

According to Ebrahim Forati, author of a collegiate research paper focusing on next-gen microelectronics, the metasurface used in the initial model is capable of achieving 1,000 times greater conductivity when exposed to the innovative, electron-freeing process. He remains optimistic about future iterations and developments, including any large-scale testing.

Once testing is complete, experts believe the new breakthrough could revolutionize the manufacture of nearly all microelectronics in the future.

Two Very Different Technologies Living Side by Side

While it’s likely we’ll see a drop in semiconductor usage over the next decade or two, experts aren’t anticipating a complete extinction of the component. In fact, Professor Sievenpiper pointed out some recommend usages for his team’s innovation. Per his suggestion, the technology is best applied to specialty hardware that utilizes high frequencies or high levels of power as well as applications in photocatalysis and photochemistry.

Paving the Way for Future Breakthroughs

If nothing else, the team with UC San Diego has proven that there are still plenty of breakthroughs to be made in the world of information technology. Graphene, which is being touted as a material that could be used in transistors to bolster their efficiency, has been researched extensively throughout the past few years. This, coupled with the recent advancement from Sievenpiper’s engineering team, could pave the way for even more development and refinement of microelectronics in the near future.