University of Utah engineers shrink plasma devices to resist radiation
University of Utah electrical engineers fabricated the smallest plasma transistors that can withstand high temperatures and ionizing radiation found in a nuclear reactor. Such transistors someday might enable smartphones that take and collect medical X-rays on a battlefield, and devices to measure air quality in real time.
University of Utah electrical engineers test a microplasma transistor by applying a voltage through four electrodes touching the surface of the transistor. Plasma is a charged gas that conducts electricity, seen here as a pink glowing light. Unlike typical transistors, the Utah microplasma transistor uses an air gap that conducts ions and electrons from a helium plasma once a voltage is applied. The new devices are designed to withstand ionizing radiation.
Credit: Dan Hixson, College of Engineering, University of Utah.
"These plasma-based electronics can be used to control and guide robots to conduct tasks inside the nuclear reactor," says Massood Tabib-Azar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Microplasma transistors in a circuit can also control nuclear reactors if something goes wrong, and also could work in the event of nuclear attack."
A study of the new transistors by Tabib-Azar and electrical engineering doctoral student Pradeep Pai appears online Thursday, March 20 in the journal IEEE Electron Device Letters, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Transistors are the workhorses of the electronics industry. They control how electricity flows in devices and act as a switch or gate for electronic signals. Billions of transistors are typically fabricated as individual but connected components on a single computer chip. The most commonly used type of transistor is called a metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor, or MOSFET.
Transistors control the flow of electrical charge through a silicon channel using an electric field to turn the transistor on or off, similar to a valve with the electric field as its control knob and electric charge as its current flow. Silicon-based transistors are a crucial component in modern electronics, but they fail above 550 degrees Fahrenheit – the temperature at which nuclear reactors typically operate.
Plasma-based transistors, which use charged gases or plasma to conduct electricity at extremely high temperatures, are employed currently in light sources, medical instruments and certain displays under direct sunlight (but not plasma TVs, which are different). These microscale devices are about 500 microns long, or roughly the width of five human hairs. They operate at more than 300 volts, requiring special high-voltage sources. Standard electrical outlets in the United States operate at 110 volts.
The new devices designed by the University of Utah engineers are the smallest microscale plasma transistors to date. They measure 1 micron to 6 microns in length, or as much as 500 times smaller than current state-of-the-art microplasma devices, and operate at one-sixth the voltage. They also can operate at temperatures up to 1,450 degrees Fahrenheit. Since nuclear radiation ionizes gases into plasma, this extreme environment makes it easier for plasma devices to operate.
"Plasmas are great for extreme environments because they are based on gases such as helium, argon and neon that can withstand high temperatures," says Tabib-Azar. "This transistor has the potential to start a new class of electronic devices that are happy to work in a nuclear environment."
A conventional transistor is made with two active layers, one on top of the other. Electricity flows through one of the layers, called the channel. The other layer, called the gate, controls current flowing in the channel. If sufficient voltage is applied to the gate, the transistor turns on.
For the new study, Tabib-Azar and Pai deposited layers of a metal alloy to form the gate on a 4-inch glass wafer. A layer of silicon then was deposited on top of the gate.
Unlike typical transistors, the Utah microplasma transistor "channel" is an air gap that conducts ions and electrons from the plasma once a voltage is applied. To achieve this unique design, the team etched away portions of the silicon film using a chemically reactive gas. This etching process leaves behind cavities and empty spaces to form the transistor's channel and expose the gate underneath. The channel tested in this new study was 2 microns wide and 10 microns long, and helium was used as the plasma source.
"Although the length scales are much smaller here, we came up with an innovative way to make these structures three-dimensional," Tabib-Azar says. "We are currently connecting these devices to form logic gates and computing circuits that we will test in our experimental nuclear reactor at the University of Utah, a facility not found in most other universities."
Traditional MOSFETs require metal to connect circuits, says Tabib-Azar, but the Utah microplasma devices will use a plasma-based connection to enable communication. As a result, these circuits will only be operational when powered up and will disappear otherwise, making them suitable for defense applications.
These plasma devices could also be used as an X-ray imaging source in the next five years, says Tabib-Azar. Because the device dimensions are so small, X-ray images from a wounded soldier in the field could be collected on a smartphone equipped with transistors that also generate the X-rays, says Tabib-Azar.
In another five years, the devices could be used to detect and identify aerosol pollutants based on the color emitted when the substance passes through the device. "These chemical sensing devices could be used to quantitatively monitor air quality in real time and enable researchers to construct an accurate air-quality map," he adds.
In the nearer-term, these new transistors could be used to generate X-rays to draw fine lines in silicon to pattern microscale devices for the electronics industry. With this new X-ray technique, Tabib-Azar says, "you can do the same thing you would with laser printing, but instead you can use these tiny X-ray sources to print on a silicon wafer. This gives engineers the ability to do X-ray lithography without having to use very heavy lenses and X-ray beam shaping devices."
University of Utah College of Engineering
72 S. Central Campus Dr., Room 1650 WEB, Salt Lake City, UT 84112
801-581-6911 fax: 801-581-8692
Aditi Risbud | EurekAlert!
Producing electricity during flight
20.09.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
Solar-to-fuel system recycles CO2 to make ethanol and ethylene
19.09.2017 | DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy