In short: Silicon may not be at the center of flexible smart devices and other electronics in the future, following a recently published study from engineers at MIT highlighting a process for creating atomically thin conductive films from previously cost-prohibitive materials. Specifically, the researchers managed to discover a way to copy multiple gallium arsenide, gallium nitride, and lithium fluoride conductive films through "remote epitaxy," from a single underlying graphene layer laid over a wafer. The underlying wafer needs to be of a material that holds an ionic charge in opposition to the charge of the materials desired for use in the final semiconductive film. After the first wafer is created or attained, the thin layer of graphene acts as an intermediary between the materials, effectively copying the underlying wafer in a thin, easily-peeled-away film.
Background: Prior to this discovery, silicon has been the underlying material of choice in electronic components almost exclusively because of how inexpensive and abundant it is. However, with consideration for smartphones and emerging technologies such as smartwatches and other wearables, it has also been something of a burden to the industry. While silicon has the benefit of being used both as an insulator and a semiconductor, it also has a rigid structure that isn't easy to mass produce in tandem with the current trends in that sector of the market. Namely, as OEMs look to improve efficiency and chip sizes continue to shrink, generating chips presents new challenges in terms of mass manufacturing. Other materials can also serve the same purpose and can sometimes do so more efficiently, but processing those has traditionally been even more expensive.
Impact: The newly discovered process alleviates one of the biggest roadblocks to using 'exotic' materials. It opens up the process of creating multiple semiconductors from a single expensive wafer without the need to mass manufacture the underlying wafer. What's more, those materials can be rendered either inert or conductive based on the material used in the underlying wafer. That's because if a material's ionic charge isn't in opposition to that of the wafer, the structure of the underlying wafer won't be copied through the graphene. That also maintains flexibility, opening up more possibilities in terms of its use in the creation of thinner, more powerful, more malleable smartphones, smartwatches, and other electronics.