Rays of hope for more powerful smart devices

September 21, 2018

Carrying a smart device such as a BlackBerry, iPhone or iPad may be a matter of convenience or status today, but in the coming years it is likely to become a necessity.

With quality of life improving around the globe, and people’s expectations of their gadgets continually growing, there is a need to have hi-tech computing, communication, data gathering and diagnostics at one’s fingertips.

Providing ever-greater functionality, energy efficiency and speed requires further development and innovation in microsystems, with a focus on nanotechnology – and to that end my research group at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is using nano-fabrication to investigate novel materials and structures for smart devices.

One of the major challenges relates to energy. The more we demand of our gadgets, the thirstier they are for power. Current devices need regular recharging from the mains – which is inconvenient, limiting and not cost-effective.

A potential solution lies in solar energy. Not only would this be free, it would make it easier to use the technology in remote or underdeveloped regions that lack regular domestic electricity supplies.

We are exploring thin-films and novel materials that could make this more readily available.

My research group is focusing on novel nano-electronic and photonic devices. This past summer, two of my students have gained hands-on experience of clean-room nano-fabrication.

One of them made silicon-germanium-based solar cells at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Germanium has useful optical properties and has been in use in photonics for some time. It allows more of the light spectrum to be captured, yielding more power.

Integrating it into existing silicon-based and complementary metal oxide silica-based devices may yield a more efficient high-performance device.

Research is focusing on growing germanium layers on cheap substrates, while fixing its currently higher rate of carrier charge leakage caused by the smaller band gap of the element.

Another master’s student worked on fabricating nanoparticle-based flash memory chips at Turkey’s new National Nanotechnology Research Centre, Unam. These chips operate at much lower voltages than existing memory and so use less power.

The experience our students are gaining in microsystems is vital to local fabrication of new devices which, in turn, is the key to any advanced microsystems research. Experience and expertise in clean-room work will allow them to make the most of Masdar’s own clean room, the only one in the region.

Already we are working on exploring and creating more novel structures – for example, multi-junction, quantum-well, nano-wire, nano-particle-based solar cells.

This research could make solar-powered microprocessing more efficient. The ability to make novel structures and to harness the properties of novel materials could lead to handheld gadgets that take their energy from the sun and use that free power for high-speed processors that can handle services such as communications, health diagnostics and data-gathering.

That would not only be an improvement on today’s iPad-type gadgets, but could be of great benefit to programmes that work to improve health care, access to information and education of impoverished communities.

Instead of trying to get unwieldy and limited laptops to such areas, you can instead send handheld devices that are far more capable and need no mains supply.

And as we create more compact and more complex gadgets, the need to understand electrical and physical processes and structures at a nano-scale becomes critical to efficiency and functionality.

The equipment and expertise at the Masdar institute microsystems department will allow us to work at the nano-scale to ensure efficiency in storage and energy transfer.

With Masdar institute’s clean-room facility we have the ability to make Abu Dhabi the centre of nano-technology in the region, and we are excited for its future.

Dr. Ammar Nayfeh is an assistant professor of microsystems engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.