IBM graphene breakthrough leads to chip that's "10,000 times better"

Accenture Technology Labs Staff
Sam Shead

Sam Shead

Sam Shead joined Techworld as a reporter in July 2013. He studied Geography with Science Communication at Royal Holloway University before completing a postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff University. Areas that he covers for Techworld include startups, entrepreneurship, wearables, mobile and telecoms.

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IBM researchers claim to have built the world’s most advanced graphene chip, with a performance that’s 10,000 times better than previous graphene integrated circuits.  

This chip, which is a radio frequency (RF) receiver built on a standard 200mm silicon wafer, is a fairly normal chip complete with resistors, capacitors, and transistors. However, it differs from other chips at the transistor channels, which are made out of graphene. The chip’s job is simply to receive and restore wireless signals in the 4.3GHz range.

In an IBM Research paper published yesterday in Nature Communications, IBM scientists revealed how the graphene receiver successfully extracted the letters "I-B-M" from a 4.3GHz radio broadcast. The digits transmitted were "01001001," "01000010," and "01001101"  a binary encoding of the letters "IBM."

The key to the breakthrough is a new manufacturing technique that allows graphene to be deposited on top of a silicon chip without it being damaged. Up until now, it has been difficult to fabricate graphene into anything useful because of how fragile it is. 

The Big Blue researchers discovered a way to add the graphene after its underlying silicon chip is already built instead of constructing the chip around the graphene. The result is an integrated circuit that combines graphene field-effect transistors (GFET) with other components used in radio communications. 

The approach is said to work well with traditional silicon CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology for manufacturing chips, making it more likely that the radio-frequency technology can be integrated with other computing functions.

"One can envision that high-performance graphene radio-frequency circuits will be directly built on top of high-density silicon CMOS logic circuits to form an extremely low-cost, ultra-compact communication system," wrote researchers Shu-Jen Han, Alberto Valdes Garcia, Satoshi Oida, Keith A. Jenkins, and Wilfried Haensch.

All photographs: IBM flickr

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IBM Graphene Integrated Circuit Fabrication

Three-stage graphene radio-frequency receiver integrated circuit. The top box shows the enlarged SEM image of an IC, revealing the successful integration of key components (inductor, capacitor, and graphene FET). The bottom box shows a single chip which contains dozens of graphene ICs per chip.

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IBM Graphene Integrated Circuit Fabrication

Demonstration of graphene IC sending and receiving a digital text message comprising of the letters "I-B-M". A screenshot of receiver output waveforms taken from the oscilloscope, with LO power of 2 dBm at 4.2 GHz. The original bit stream comprising three letters (24 bits) was recovered by graphene receiver with very low distortion. The circuit was measured in air.

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IBM Chip with Graphene ICs

Photo of a fully processed graphene IC chip. The novel approach developed by IBM researchers completely reverses the conventional silicon integrated circuit fabrication flow, leaving graphene transistors as the last step of integrated circuit fabrication, which preserves graphene device performance.

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IBM Graphene IC - SEM

Tilted view scanning electron microscopic (SEM) image revealing the integration of key components in IC with enlarged view showing the advanced gate structure of the graphene field-effect transistors (GFET). Inset image shows crosssectional SEM of embedded T-shaped gate. Scale bar, 500 nm.

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IBM Graphene IC - optical micrograph

Optical micrograph of a grapene IC under testing. The circuit has the dimension of 1,020 x 600 mm2. Scale bar, 100 mm.

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IBM Graphene IC in wafer tester - up close

The multi-stage graphene RF receiver integrated circuit consists of 3 graphene transistors, 4 inductors, 2 capacitors, and 2 resistors. All circuit components are fully integrated into a 0.6 mm2 area and fabricated in a 200 mm (or 8 inch) silicon production line, showing the unprecedented graphene circuit complexity and highest silicon CMOS process compatibility.

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IBM Graphene IC - under testing

Receivers are one of the key components in any wireless communication systems. The circuits, consuming less than 20 mW power to operate, also demonstrated the highest conversion gain of any graphene RF circuits at multiple GHz frequency.

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IBM Graphene IC schematic

Circuit schematic of three-stage graphene receiver IC comprising 11 active and passive components. The scientific paper titled "Graphene Radio Frequency Receiver Integrated Circuit", by Shu-Jen Han, Alberto Valdes Garcia, Satoshi Oida, Keith A. Jenkins and Wilfried Haensch, appears in Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4086.

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