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New Carbon Nanotube Circuits Provide Wealth of Opportunities

For years, when it comes to making circuits and chips, engineers have relied on silicon. While this material is ideal for this type of technology, it is an expensive material and one that is difficult to produce. This not only impacts the bottom lines of companies looking to manufacture technological products, it also impacts the consumers that purchase those products.

Until recently, there simply weren’t any competitors to silicon, but that may be changing thanks to a pair of researchers from USC. Dr. Chongwu Zhou and Haitian Chen, research assistant and electrical engineering PhD student at USC Viterbi, may have developed a brand new material that will give silicon a run for its money.

This new material, carbon nanotube thin film transistors can be paired with other thin film transistors to build circuits. Not only is the material cheaper to make than silicon chips, it is also nearly transparent and very flexible.

“I came up with this concept in January 2013,” said Dr. Chongwu Zhou, professor in USC Viterbi’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. “Before then, we were working hard to try to turn carbon nanotubes into n-type transistors and then one day, the idea came to me. Instead of working so hard to force nanotubes to do something that they are not good for, why don’t we just find another material which would be ideal for n-type transistors — in this case, IGZO — so we can achieve complementary circuits?”

Zhou continued, “It’s like a perfect marriage. We are very excited about this idea of hybrid integration and we believe there is a lot of potential for it.”

Not only could this discovery impact digital devices, it is poised to have an enormous impact on medical engineering. With silicon chips, when they are implanted into a patient’s body, they can only send information through electrodes that are placed in specific spots on the body. With this new material, electrodes could be placed anywhere and still receive information.

“We believe this is a technological breakthrough, as no one has done this before,” said Haitian Chen, research assistant and electrical engineering PhD student at USC Viterbi. “This gives us further proof that we can make larger integrations so we can make more complicated circuits for computers and circuits.”

“The possibilities are endless, as digital circuits can be used in any electronics,” Chen added. “One day we’ll be able to print these circuits as easily as newspapers.” Zhou continued in this vein, stating, “I believe that this is just the beginning of creating hybrid integrated solutions. We will see a lot of interesting work coming up.”

Engineering students may soon be able to experiment with this material soon, and they could also take a page from Zhou and Chen and come up with their own material that could once again revolutionize the industry.

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