Berkeley Lab researchers awarded funding from US Department of Energy

Mug composite of Maurice Garcia-Sciveres and Ramamoorthy Ramesh
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Maurice Garcia-Sciveres and Ramamoorthy Ramesh, will both lead teams to work on developing energy-efficient alternatives to silicon electronics.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists will lead two of 10 projects that jointly received $54 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to improve energy efficiency in microelectronics.

Berkeley Lab senior scientists Maurice Garcia-Sciveres and Ramamoorthy Ramesh, who is also a campus physics and materials science and engineering professor, will each lead a team to conduct research over the next three years focusing on developing energy-efficient alternatives to silicon electronics.

“There are clear and present implications for climate change from this work,” Ramesh said. “Using the physics and materials strength at Berkeley, we’re trying to reduce the total energy consumed by these devices.”

The co-designed project, led by Ramesh, studies the behavior of electric polarization and magnetization in nonsilicon materials as a means of eventually creating nonsilicon devices that can perform at lower voltages and therefore conserve energy. His research focuses on utilizing different characteristics of electrons to manipulate their behavior, such as using magnetic properties to change an electron’s spin to perform logic operations.

Garcia-Sciveres’ project aims to develop a new light sensor using nonsilicon technologies. Microchips today are still silicon-based, so his team tests the sensors by mounting them on a traditional silicon chip, Garcia-Sciveres added. While the project does not directly aim to reduce energy consumption from electronics, he aims to prove that new, nonsilicon materials can effectively make light measurements.

“Solving this energy problem is not an easy task,” Garcia-Sciveres said. “You don’t really know exactly where the solutions are going to come from. In my case, it’s nice to be involved in doing something that’s relevant for going in a new direction.”

Nearly all electronics today are made with silicon-based devices. According to Ramesh, as power consumption expands and the number of devices increases, microelectronics could consume more than 25% of the world’s energy in 2030, compared to about 5% today. By 2040, the entire world’s energy could be consumed by electronics if nothing is done to improve energy efficiency, he added.

In order to reduce energy consumption, microelectronic devices should be able to function at lower voltages, Ramesh noted.

Traditional silicon-based devices, however, cannot scale down below a certain voltage threshold, which limits their ability to be energy efficient, he added.

According to Garcia-Sciveres, the DOE focused on providing funding to projects that are exploring nonsilicon alternatives to traditional technologies. Ramesh added their projects in microelectronics are relevant to global challenges such as climate change and national security.

“We’re very happy that we’re doing something that’s useful for the nation,” Ramesh said. “By doing the fundamental science, you’re actually impacting something within the DOE landscape (and) also impacting the nation.”

Amudha Sairam is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.