Superconducting Computer Chip Breakthrough

Artist view of the implantation of gallium ions (animated in blue) into germanium wafers followed by a reconstruction of the lattice using short-term flash-lamp annealing and, finally, of the observation of superconductivity at low temperatures. Other than in normal conductors, superconductivity is caused by the formation of electron pairs with anti-parallel momentum and spin (animated in red).

Scientists at the Forschungszentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (FZD) research center were now able to produce superconducting germanium for the first time. Furthermore, they could unravel a few of the mysteries which come along with superconducting semiconductors. Their findings are published – marked as editor’s choice – in the recent issue of “Physical Review Letters”.

At the FZD, germanium samples were doped with about six gallium atoms per 100 germanium atoms. With these experiments, the scientists could prove indeed that the doped germanium layer of only sixty nanometers thickness became superconducting, and not just the clusters of foreign atoms which could easily form during extreme doping .

As the germanium lattice is heavily damaged by ion implantation, it has to be repaired afterwards. For such purposes, a flash-lamp annealing facility has been developed at the FZD. Its application allows for a repair of the destroyed crystal lattice by rapidly heating the sample surface (within few milliseconds) while the distribution of the dopant atoms is kept almost the same.

From a scientific point of view, the new material is very promising. It exhibits a surprisingly high critical magnetic field with respect to the temperature where the substance becomes superconducting. For many materials, superconductivity occurs only at very low temperatures, slightly above the absolute zero point of -273 degrees Celsius or 0 Kelvin. The gallium doped germanium samples become superconducting at about 0.5 Kelvin; however, the FZD researchers expect the temperature to increase further by changing various parameters during ion implantation or annealing.

Physicists have been dreaming about superconducting semiconductors for a long time, but saw only few chances for the semiconductor germanium to become superconducting at all. Germanium used to be the material for the first generation of transistors; however, it was soon replaced by silicon, the current material for microelectronics. Recently, the “old” semiconductor material germanium has aroused more and more interest, as it allows, compared to silicon, for more rapid circuits. Experts even believe germanium to be rediscovered for micro- and nanoelectronics. The reason for such a renaissance lies in the fact that miniaturization in microelectronics industry using silicon is coming to an end. Today, extremely thin oxide layers are needed for transistors, down to a level where silicon oxide does not work well any more. Germanium as a new material for chips would come along with two big advantages: it would enable both faster processes and further miniaturization in micro- and nanoelectronics. Superconducting germanium could thus help to realize circuits for novel computers.

Abstract: Superconducting State in a Gallium-Doped Germanium Layer at Low Temperatures

We demonstrate that the third elemental group-IV semiconductor, germanium, exhibits superconductivity at ambient pressure. Using advanced doping and annealing techniques of state-of-the-art semiconductor processing, we have fabricated a highly Ga-doped Ge (Ge:Ga) layer in near-intrinsic Ge. Depending on the detailed annealing conditions, we demonstrate that superconductivity can be generated and tailored in the doped semiconducting Ge host at temperatures as high as 0.5 K. Critical-field measurements reveal the quasi-two-dimensional character of superconductivity in the ~60 nm thick Ge:Ga layer. The Cooper-pair density in Ge:Ga appears to be exceptionally low.