Graphene Used to Produce Cheaper Semiconductor Wafers

The semiconductor industry recorded a rather expensive fiscal year in 2016 with a whopping $7.2 billion being spent on wafers serving as substrates for microelectronics components.

Researchers at MIT have  developed a new technique that could vastly reduce the overall cost of wafer technology and enable devices made from more exotic, higher-performing semiconductor materials than conventional silicon. The new method reported in a leading magazine, uses Graphene - single-atom-thin sheets of graphite - as a sort of "copy machine" to transfer intricate crystalline patterns from an underlying semiconductor wafer to a top layer of identical material.

The engineers worked out controlled procedures to place single sheets of graphene onto an expensive wafer. They then grew semiconducting material over the graphene layer. It was found that graphene is thin enough to appear electrically invisible, allowing the top layer to see through the graphene to the underlying crystalline wafer, imprinting its patterns without being influenced by the graphene. Graphene is also rather "slippery" and does not tend to stick to other materials easily, enabling the engineers to simply peel the top semiconducting layer from the wafer after its structures have been imprinted.

In conventional semiconductor manufacturing, the wafer, once its crystalline pattern is transferred, is so strongly bonded to the semiconductor that it is almost impossible to separate without damaging both layers. With the group's new technique, manufacturers can now use graphene as an intermediate layer, allowing them to copy and paste the wafer, separate a copied film from the wafer, and reuse the wafer many times over. In addition to saving on the cost of wafers, this opens opportunities for exploring more exotic semiconductor materials.

Graphene has been known to be an extremely good conductor of electricity, as electrons flow through graphene with virtually no friction. Researchers, therefore, have been intent on finding ways to adapt graphene as a cheap, high-performance semiconducting material. But in order for a Graphene based transistor to work, it must be able to turn a flow of electrons on and off, to generate a pattern of ones and zeros, instructing a device on how to carry out a set of computations. As it happens, it is very hard to stop the flow of electrons through graphene, making it an excellent conductor but a poor semiconductor. The group thus took an entirely new approach to using graphene in semiconductors. Instead of focusing on graphene's electrical properties, the researchers looked at the material's mechanical features.

The team now reports that graphene, with its ultrathin, Teflon-like properties, can be sandwiched between a wafer and its semiconducting layer, providing a barely perceptible, nonstick surface through which the semiconducting material's atoms can still rearrange in the pattern of the wafer's crystals. The material, once imprinted, can simply be peeled off from the graphene surface, allowing manufacturers to reuse the original wafer. The team found that its technique, which they term "remote epitaxy," was successful in copying and peeling off layers of semiconductors from the same semiconductor wafers. The researchers had success in applying their technique to exotic wafer and semiconducting materials, including Indium Phosphide, Gallium Arsenenide, and Gallium Phosphide—materials that are 50 to 100 times more expensive than silicon. This new technique makes it possible for manufacturers to reuse wafers—of silicon and higher-performing materials—conceptually, ad infinitum.

The group's graphene-based peel-off technique may also advance the field of flexible electronics. In general, wafers are very rigid, making the devices they are fused to similarly inflexible. But now semiconductor devices such as LEDs and solar cells can be made to bend and twist. In fact, the group demonstrated this possibility by fabricating a flexible LED display, patterned in the MIT logo, using their technique.

Going forward, the researchers plan to design a reusable "mother wafer" with regions made from different exotic materials. Using graphene as an intermediary, they hope to create multifunctional, high-performance devices. They are also investigating mixing and matching various semiconductors and stacking them up as a multi-material structure.