Method to replace silicon with carbon nanotubes developed by IBM Research

Could work down to the 1.8 nanometer node in the future
October 2, 2015

Schematic of a set of molybdenum (M0) end-contacted nanotube transistors (credit: Qing Cao et al./Science)

IBM Research has announced a “major engineering breakthrough” that could lead to carbon nanotubes replacing silicon transistors in future computing technologies.

As transistors shrink in size, electrical resistance increases within the contacts, which impedes performance. So IBM researchers invented a metallurgical process similar to microscopic welding that chemically binds the contact’s metal (molybdenum) atoms to the carbon atoms at the ends of nanotubes.

The new method promises to shrink transistor contacts without reducing performance of carbon-nanotube devices, opening a pathway to dramatically faster, smaller, and more powerful computer chips beyond the capabilities of traditional silicon semiconductors.

“This is the kind of breakthrough that we’re committed to making at IBM Research via our $3 billion investment over 5 years in research and development programs aimed a pushing the limits of chip technology,” said Dario Gil, VP, Science & Technology, IBM Research. “Our aim is to help IBM produce high-performance systems capable of handling the extreme demands of new data analytics and cognitive computing applications.”

The development was reported today in the October 2 issue of the journal Science.

Overcoming contact resistance

Schematic of carbon nanotube transistor contacts. Left: High-resistance side-bonded contact, where the single-wall nanotube (SWNT) (black tube) is partially covered by the metal molybdenum (Mo) (purple dots). Right: low-resistance end-bonded contact, where the SWNT is attached to the molybdenum electrode through carbide bonds, while the carbon atoms (black dots) from the originally covered portion of the SWNT uniformly diffuse out into the Mo electrode (credit: Qing Cao et al./Science)

The new “end-bonded contact scheme” allows carbon-nanotube contacts to be shrunken down to below 10 nanometers without deteriorating performance. IBM says the scheme could overcome contact resistance challenges all the way to the 1.8 nanometer node and replace silicon with carbon nanotubes.

Silicon transistors have been made smaller year after year, but they are approaching a point of physical limitation. With Moore’s Law running out of steam, shrinking the size of the transistor — including the channels and contacts — without compromising performance has been a challenge for researchers for decades.

Single wall carbon nanotube (credit: IBM)

IBM has previously shown that carbon nanotube transistors can operate as excellent switches at channel dimensions of less than ten nanometers, which is less than half the size of today’s leading silicon technology. Electrons in carbon transistors can move more easily than in silicon-based devices and use less power.

Carbon nanotubes are also flexible and transparent, making them useful for flexible and stretchable electronics or sensors embedded in wearables.

IBM acknowledges that several major manufacturing challenges still stand in the way of commercial devices based on nanotube transistors.

Earlier this summer, IBM unveiled the first 7 nanometer node silicon test chip, pushing the limits of silicon technologies.