The switches in most electronic circuits are made of silicon, one of the commonest elements. But their successors might contain materials that, for now, are lab-grown oddities: strongly correlated metal oxides.
The allure of these materials lies in the outer shells of electrons surrounding their metal atoms. The shells are incomplete, leaving the electrons free to participate in coordinated quantum-mechanical behavior. In some materials, electrons pair up to produce superconductivity, or coordinate their spins to produce magnetism. Other materials can switch from being an insulator to a conductor.
Unlike transitions to superconductivity, which happen as temperatures approach absolute zero, the insulating-to-conducting transition typically happens as temperature increases, and sometimes occurs near room temperature. That has raised hopes that metal oxides could be used instead of silicon to make transistors. A spate of results is now making that look feasible. “People are interested in seeing if oxides can make it to applications,” says Manuel Bibes, a physicist at the Joint Physics Unit in Palaiseau, France, which is run by the French National Research Center and electronics company Thales.
Metal oxide transistors have the potential to consume less power than silicon switches, because the phase transition frees electrons from their localized state near each atom, without moving them through the bulk material. By contrast, silicon switches work by pulling electrons through the material to a channel where they conduct current (see ‘Go with the flow’).
In the past 5–10 years, researchers have succeeded in growing high-quality thin films of the metal oxides — overcoming one of the major barriers to applications. In July 2012, for example, a group in Japan reported that it had deposited a thin film of vanadium dioxide that underwent a phase transition in response to an applied electric field — proof that the material could be used as an electronic switch.
And last month, a group led by Shriram Ramanathan, a materials scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, addressed a fabrication challenge by growing a thin film of samarium nickelate on top of a substrate made of silicon and silicon dioxide.
The nickelate was deposited at a relatively low temperature that did not disturb the underlying silicon layers, raising the possibility of manufacturing metal oxides on top of silicon wafers to form three-dimensional chips, says Andrew Millis, a solid-state theorist at Columbia University in New York. Not only would that allow computing power to be packed much more densely, says Millis, but it would also permit metal oxide switches to be built on top of existing circuit architectures.
Other groups are trying to understand the nature of the phase transition. In January, Ivan Schuller, a solid-state physicist at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues showed that in vanadium oxide, the transition is in large part caused by micrometer-scale heating by the applied electric field.