December 8, 2006 2:32 PM PST

Move over silicon, there's new transistor material in town

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology plan to present research on transistor technology next week that they hope will jumpstart a new development phase in tiny electronics beyond the iPod and the cell phone.

MIT engineers estimate that silicon transistors, essential to gadgets like iPods, phones and kitchen appliances, will hit a wall in terms of size and performance within the next 10 to 15 years. So MIT, among others, is working with new composite materials it hopes will be able to reliably outpace the conducting speed of silicon.

One such material is indium gallium arsenide, or InGaAs, a material in which electrons travel many times faster than in silicon. MIT's Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) recently demonstrated InGaAs-fabricated transistors that can carry 2.5 times more current than the latest silicon devices. The transistor was only 60 nanometers, or billionths of a meter long.

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The benefit could lead to smaller devices that can process information more quickly.

"Each of us has several billion transistors working on our behalf every day in our phone, laptop, iPod, car, kitchen and more," said Jesus del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and member of the MTL.

"We are looking at new semiconductor materials for transistors that will continue to improve in performance, while devices get smaller and smaller," he said in a statement.

MIT's work will be presented at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting December 11.

The transistor technology is young, and researchers must work through some challenges. For example, InGaAs can break more often than silicon so manufacturing the transistors in bulk could be difficult. Still, del Alamo expects that a prototype of these InGaAs microdevices will be developed in the next two years.

Intel, one of the lab's sponsors, is encouraged by the results.

"The 60-nanometer InGaAs quantum-well transistor demonstrated by Professor del Alamo's group shows some exciting results at low supply voltage (e.g. 0.5 volts) and is a very important research milestone," Robert Chau, senior fellow and director of transistor research and nanotechnology at Intel, said in a statement.

The Microelectronics Advanced Research Corporation also sponsored MIT's research.

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