University College London (UCL) has discovered a world first in the manufacturing of microchips. The Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering has used nanotechnology techniques to successfully induce the oxidation of silicon at room temperatures using light from ultraviolet (UV) excimer lamps, instead of high-temperature, energy-hungry furnaces.
The oxidation process creates the natural skin, or oxide coating, that grows on silicon, and is hugely beneficial in microelectronics. It is a marvellous insulator and in electrical applications it can protect the silicon, store electrical charge, block electrical current and even act as a controlled pathway to allow small currents to flow through a device.
The coating typically grows extremely slowly at room temperature. To manufacture chips, the oxide is grown by deliberately heating the silicon in high temperature furnaces at temperatures of 900-1200 degrees centigrade. UCL’s breakthrough means that these furnaces could be made redundant, radically reducing the amount of energy consumed during the silicon manufacturing process.
The research, led by Professor Ian Boyd, Course Director for UCL’s new MSc in Nanotechnology, means that future electronic chips could be produced in a more energy efficient and cost-effective way. The discovery also opens up new possibilities for using light instead of heat to fabricate advanced electronic devices, as well as creating the opportunity to realise completely new materials with unique properties.
Professor Ian Boyd says: “Our finding has the potential to completely overhaul the way that the microelectronic industry processes silicon. Silicon chips are used in thousands of devices, from high-tech electronics, such as PCs and personal media players, to everyday items like washing machines and alarm clocks. This finding means that the industry’s energy, and subsequent cost savings, could reduce the prices of electronic devices for consumers and, of course, create a positive environmental impact.
“UCL and the UK are driving innovation in the dynamic, emerging field of nanotechnology. Our students continue to make groundbreaking discoveries in this new discipline, supported by state-of-the-art labs, our stimulating MSc course structure and the expertise of our lecturers."