The development of the silicon chip forever changed the field of electronics and the world at large. From computers to cellphones to digital home appliances, the silicon chip has become an inextricable part of the structure of our society. However, as silicon begins to reach its limits many researchers are looking for new materials to continue the electronics revolution.
Fan Ren, Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida and Technical Editor of the ECS Journal of Solid State Science and Technology, has based his career in the field of electronics and semiconductor devices. From his time at Bell Labs through today, Ren has witnessed much change in the field.
Future of Electronics
Upon coming to the United States from Taiwan, Ren was hired by Bell Labs. This hub of innovation had a major impact on Ren and his work, and is where he first got his hands-on semiconductor research. During this time, silicon was the major player as far as electronic materials went. While electronics have transformed since that time, the materials used to create integrated circuits have essentially stayed the same.
People keep saying of other semiconductors, “This will be the material for the next generation of devices,” says Ren. “However, it hasn’t really changed. Silicon is still dominating.”
For example, in the 1980s, people thought gallium arsenide based devices would provide the next generation of high speed circuits, such as the aluminum gallium arsenide-based high electron mobility transistor (HEMT) invented at Bell Labs. However, gallium arsenide based devices have only become standard in some important niche applications.
While silicon has remained the dominant material in the field of electronics, the dimensions of the transistors have changed drastically throughout the years. The iconic Moore’s law dictates that transistor density doubles every two years, driving individual transistors to become smaller, while the processing power of the chips themselves increases.
Silicon has facilitated Moore’s law for the past decades, but it is now becoming much more difficult to continue the projected growth. Researchers are beginning to look at new materials such as 2D black phosphorus or metal dichalcogenides and graphene to continue electronic growth.
“That’s part of the fun,” says Ren. “Everyone is competing with each other to find the next big thing.”
At the University of Florida, Ren and his team are working on the development of gallium nitride-based sensors. Working from existing technology, Ren and his team have been able to make advancements that could potentially save lives around the world.
By functionalizing the already-existing semiconductor devices and adding the biomarkers and antibodies that can detect a multitude of cancers, Ren and his team are opening new doors in the arena of cancer detection—specifically, the detection of breast cancer.
The non-invasive testing method developed by Ren and his colleagues allows for women to screen for breast cancer by placing a small sample of saliva on a device. The data from this is then wirelessly transmitted to be analyzed, allowing testing to be done frequently and even from the comfort of one’s own home. Additionally, the chips required for this test are very cheap.
These sensors are also versatile and could be changed to detect anything from prostate cancer to carbon monoxide. While the materials used to make new electronics may be in question, it’s clear that the future of the field still holds very much potential.
With the research from Ren and other scientists around the world, electronics will continue to thrive and provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges.
For more information about the future of electronics, listen to our podcasts with Yue Kuo, leader in solid state science and Lili Deligianni, researcher at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
Research Interests: Ren’s current research focuses on wide energy bandgap semiconductor based electronics and sensors, 3D semiconductor chip integration, UV laser drilling, AlGaN/GaN HEMT reliability, and the effect of irradiation on AlGaN/GaN HEMT performance.
Awards: Ren is a recipient of Gordon E. Moore Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Solid State Science and Technology from ECS, Albert Nerken Award from AVS, Electronics and Photonics Division Award from ECS, NASA Tech Brief Initial Award, NASA Patent Application Initial Award, University of Florida Teaching and Scholar Award, Doctoral Dissertation Advisor/Mentoring Award and Research Foundation Professor Award from UF. He is fellow of APS, AVS, ECS, IEEE, MRS and SPIE.