On-chip metal interconnects limit IC speed in many advanced design today, and with signal delay proportional to the product of the resistance (R) of wires and the capacitance (C) of dielectric insulation, wires with R lower than that of copper (Cu) metal would significantly improve IC performance. We know of superconductors—materials with zero resistance to electrical current flow—but only at “critical temperature” (Tc) well below 77°K, and so there has been an ongoing quest by scientists to find a material with Tc above room temperature of 298°K.
Sadly, after 4 years and nearly 1000 materials tested, a team of 6 Japanese research groups led by Hideo Hosono from the Tokyo Institute of Technology found no room temperature superconductors. They did find 100 previously unknown superconductors with Tc <56°K, and they published crystal structures and phase diagrams of all materials studied to help other researchers avoid now known dead-ends (DOI: 10.1088/1468-6996/16/3/033503).
Other researchers continue to explore the possibilities of using one-dimensional (1D) carbon-based materials such as carbon-nano-tubes (CNT) or graphene as on-chip conductors. So far, there are extreme difficulties in controlling the growth of such 1D structures within interconnect patterns, and additional challenges with forming ohmic contacts between CNT and Cu lines across billions of connections in a modern IC. More science is seemingly needed to find new paths before the engineers can explore those paths to find better solutions. Meanwhile…for the next few years at least…expect Cu metal to be the continued choice for nearly all multi-level metal interconnects on chip.
Sharon C. Glotzer and Nicholas A. Kotov are both researchers at the University of Michigan who were just awarded a MRS Medal at the Materials Research Society (MRS) Fall Meeting in San Francisco for their work on “Integration of Computation and Experiment for Discovery and Design of Nanoparticle Self-Assembly.” Due to the fact that surface atoms compose a large percent of the mass of nanoparticles, the functional properties of quasi-1D nanoparticles differ significantly from 2D thin-films and from 3D bulk materials. An example of such a unique functional property is seen in self-assembly of nanoparticles to form complex structures, which could find applications in renewable energy production, optoelectronics, and medical electronics.
While self-assembly has been understood as an emergent property of nanoparticles, research and development (R&D) has been somewhat limited to experimental trial-and-error due to a lack of theory. Glotzer and Kotov along with their colleagues have moved past this limit using a tight collaboration between computational prediction and experimental observation. The computational theorist Glotzer provides modeling on shapes and symmetric structures, while the experimentalist Kotov’s explores areas involving atomic composition and finite interactions. Kotov and his students create a nanoparticle and look for Glotzer and her group to explan the structure. Conversely, Glotzer predicts the formation of certain structures and has those predictions confirmed experimentally by Kotov.
One specific area the two scientists have explored is the formation of supraparticles—agglomerations of tightly packed nanoparticles that are self-limiting in size. The supraparticles are so regular in size and sphericality that they would actually pack to form face-centered-cubic (fcc) lattice-like structures. The theoretical and computational work, followed by experimental verification, further proved that these supraparticles could be formed from a vast variety of nanoparticles and even proteins, provided they were small enough and had significant van der Waals and electronic repulsion forces. This exciting development creates a whole new class of “bionic” materials that may combine biomaterials and inorganics. —E.K.