Ferroelectrics could pave way for ultra-low power computing

Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that it is possible to reduce the minimum voltage necessary to store charge in a capacitor, an achievement that could reduce the power draw and heat generation of today’s electronics.

Khan, working in the lab of Sayeef Salahuddin, UC Berkeley assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, has been leading a project since 2008 to improve the efficiency of transistors.

The researchers took advantage of the exotic characteristics of ferroelectrics, a class of material that holds both positive and negative electrical charges. Ferroelectrics hold electrical charge even when you don’t apply a voltage to it. What’s more, the electrical polarization in ferroelectrics can be reversed with the application of an external electrical field.

Getting more bang for the buck

The engineers demonstrated for the first time that in a capacitor made with a ferroelectric material paired with a dielectric – an electrical insulator – the charge accumulated for a given voltage can, in effect, be amplified, a phenomenon called negative capacitance.

Shown is a rendition of an experimental stack made with a layer of lead zirconate titanate, a ferroelectric material. UC Berkeley researchers showed that this configuration could amplify the charge in the layer of strontium titanate, an electrical insulator, for a given voltage, a phenomenon known as negative capacitance. (Asif Khan image)

Applied Physics Letters – Experimental evidence of ferroelectric negative capacitance in nanoscale heterostructures

Arxiv – Experimental evidence of ferroelectric negative capacitance in nanoscale heterostructures (33 pages)

We report a proof-of-concept demonstration of negative capacitance effect in a nanoscale ferroelectric-dielectric heterostructure. In a bilayer of ferroelectric Pb(Zr0.2Ti0.8)O3 and dielectric SrTiO3, the composite capacitance was observed to be larger than the constituent SrTiO3 capacitance, indicating an effective negative capacitance of the constituent Pb(Zr0.2Ti0.8)O3 layer. Temperature is shown to be an effective tuning parameter for the ferroelectric negative capacitance and the degree of capacitance enhancement in the heterostructure. Landau’s mean field theory based calculations show qualitative agreement with observed effects. This work underpins the possibility that by replacing gate oxides by ferroelectrics in nanoscale transistors, the sub threshold slope can be lowered below the classical limit (60 mV/decade).

The team report their results in the Sept. 12 issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters. The experiment sets the stage for a major upgrade to transistors, the on-off switch that generate the zeros and ones of a computer’s binary language.

“This work is the proof-of-principle we have needed to pursue negative capacitance as a viable strategy to overcome the power draw of today’s transistors,” said Salahuddin, who first theorized the existence of negative capacitance in ferroelectric materials as a graduate student with engineering professor Supriyo Datta at Purdue University. “If we can use this to create low-power transistors without compromising performance and the speed at which they work, it could change the whole computing industry.”

The researchers paired a ferroelectric material, lead zirconate titanate (PZT), with an insulating dielectric, strontium titanate (STO), to create a bilayer stack. They applied voltage to this PZT-STO structure, as well as to a layer of STO alone, and compared the amount of charge stored in both devices.

“There was an expected voltage drop to obtain a specific charge with the dielectric material,” said Salahuddin. “But with the ferroelectric structure, we demonstrated a two-fold voltage enhancement in the charge for the same voltage, and that increase could potentially go significantly higher.”

The solution proposed by Salahuddin and his team is to modify current transistors so that they incorporate ferroelectric materials in their design, a change that could potentially generate a larger charge from a smaller voltage. This would allow engineers to make a transistor that dissipates less heat, and the shrinking of this key computer component could continue.

Notably, the material system the UC Berkeley researchers reported shows this effect at above 200 degrees Celsius, much hotter than the 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit) at which a current day microprocessor works.

The researchers are now exploring new ferroelectric materials for room temperature negative capacitance in addition to incorporating the materials into a new transistor.

Until then, Salahuddin noted that there are other potential applications for ferroelectrics in electronics. “This is a good system for dynamic random access memories, energy storage devices, super-capacitors that charge electric cars, and power capacitors for use in radio frequency communications,” he said.

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