No longer just a spectator, silicon oxide gets into the electronics action on computer chips

January 19, 2011

In the materials science equivalent of a football fan jumping onto the field and scoring a touchdown, scientists are documenting that one fundamental component of computer chips, long regarded as a passive bystander, can actually be made to act like a switch. That potentially allows it to take part in the electronic processes that power cell phones, iPads, computers, and thousands of other products. In a report in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the scientists document the multiple ways in which silicon dioxide, long regarded simply as an electric insulator, gets involved in the action. This behavior had formerly confused scientists working in the area of nanoelectronics -- they thought that the switching was due to the nano-additive but it turns out that the source of the switching might be from the underlying silicon oxide itself.

Jun Yao, Douglas Natelson, Lin Zhong, and James Tour explain that manufacturers have long used silicon oxide, normally a very poor conductor of electricity, as both a supportive and insulating material in electronics. Silicon, a primary component of beach sand, is the semiconductor material at the heart of modern electronics. When bound to oxygen, the resulting silicon oxide is generally one of the highest quality electronic insulating materials. The scientists recently showed, however, that the oxide material can be converted to a switchable conductor by an electrical process. This phenomenon may hold the key to developing a new generation of smaller, more powerful computer chips, but the mechanism behind this switching was unclear, until now. It also clarifies the possible nature behind the switching events in former molecular and nano-scale systems.

The scientists sandwiched a nano-sized layer of silicon oxide, thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, between two electrodes and exposed the device to increasing amounts of electrical current. They demonstrated that electricity can cause the silicon oxide to breakdown into smaller components, nano-sized crystals of silicon, in a way that boosts its electrical conductivity and makes it a player in the working processes of computer chips.
The authors acknowledged funding from the Army Research Office, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Texas Instruments Leadership University Fund, and National Science Foundation Award No. 0720825.

"Silicon Oxide: A Non-innocent Surface for Molecular Electronics and Nanoelectronics Studies"


James M. Tour, Ph.D.
T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry
Professor of Computer Science
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science
Rice University
Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, MS222
6100 Main Street, Houston, Texas 77005
Phone: 713-348-6246, Fax: 713-348-6250
Email:, Web:

American Chemical Society

Related Silicon Articles from Brightsurf:

Single photons from a silicon chip
Quantum technology holds great promise: Quantum computers are expected to revolutionize database searches, AI systems, and computational simulations.

For solar boom, scrap silicon for this promising mineral
Cornell University engineers have found that photovoltaic wafers in solar panels with all-perovskite structures outperform photovoltaic cells made from state-of-the-art crystalline silicon, as well as perovskite-silicon tandem cells, which are stacked pancake-style cells that absorb light better.

Surprisingly strong and deformable silicon
Researchers at ETH have shown that tiny objects can be made from silicon that are much more deformable and stronger than previously thought.

A leap in using silicon for battery anodes
Scientists have come up with a novel way to use silicon as an energy storage ingredient.

Flexible thinking on silicon solar cells
Combining silicon with a highly elastic polymer backing produces solar cells that have record-breaking stretchability and high efficiency.

No storm in a teacup -- it's a cyclone on a silicon chip
University of Queensland researchers have combined quantum liquids and silicon-chip technology to study turbulence for the first time, opening the door to new navigation technologies and improved understanding of the turbulent dynamics of cyclones and other extreme weather.

Black silicon can help detect explosives
Scientists from Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology, and Melbourne Center for Nanofabrication developed an ultrasensitive detector based on black silicon.

2D antimony holds promise for post-silicon electronics
Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering are searching for alternative materials to silicon with semiconducting properties that could form the basis for an alternative chip.

Silicon technology boost with graphene and 2D materials
In a review published in Nature, ICFO researchers and collaborators report on the current state, challenges, opportunities of graphene and 2D material integration in Silicon technology.

Light and sound in silicon chips: The slower the better
Acoustics is a missing dimension in silicon chips because acoustics can complete specific tasks that are difficult to do with electronics and optics alone.

Read More: Silicon News and Silicon Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to