A breakthrough flexible, energy-efficient hybrid circuit made from carbon nanotube could one day replace silicon in some commercial applications in 5-10 years

Researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering describe how they have overcome a major issue in carbon nanotube technology by developing a flexible, energy-efficient hybrid circuit combining carbon nanotube thin film transistors with other thin film transistors. This hybrid could take the place of silicon as the traditional transistor material used in electronic chips, since carbon nanotubes are more transparent, flexible and can be processed at a lower cost.

A perfect marriage of materials

Carbon nanotubes are so small that they can only be viewed through a scanning electron microscope. This hybridization of carbon nanotube thin films and IGZO thin films was achieved by combining their types — p-type and n-type, respectively — to create circuits that can operate complementarily, reducing power loss and increasing efficiency. The inclusion of IGZO thin film transistors was necessary to provide power efficiency to increase battery life. If only carbon nanotubes had been used, then the circuits would not be power-efficient. By combining the two materials, their strengths have been joined and their weaknesses hidden.

Applications for this kind of integrated circuitry are numerous, including Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), digital circuits, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, sensors, wearable electronics and flash memory devices. Even heads-up displays on vehicle dashboards could soon be a reality.

Nature Communications – Large-scale complementary macroelectronics using hybrid integration of carbon nanotubes and IGZO thin-film transistors

The new technology also has major medical implications. Currently, memory chips are built on the surface of silicon substrates built in computers and phones. To obtain medical information from a patient, such as heart rate or brainwave data, stiff electrode objects are placed on several fixed locations on the patient’s body. With this new hybridized circuit, however, electrodes could be placed all over the patient’s body with just a single large but flexible object.

With this development, Zhou and his team have created a hybrid integration of p-type carbon nanotube TFTs and n-type IGZO TFTs and are demonstrating a large-scale integration of circuits. As a proof of concept, they achieved a scale ring oscillator consisting of more than 1,000 transistors. Up to this point, all carbon nanotube-based transistors had a maximum number of 200 transistors.

The next step for Zhou and his team will be to build more complicated circuits using a CNT and IGZO hybrid that achieves more complicated functions and computations, as well as to build circuits on flexible substrates.

“The possibilities are endless, as digital circuits can be used in any electronics,” Chen said. “One day we’ll be able to print these circuits as easily as newspapers.”

Zhou and Chen believe that carbon nanotube technology, including this new CNT-IGZO hybrid, will be commercialized in the next five to 10 years.

“I believe that this is just the beginning of creating hybrid integrated solutions,” said Zhou. “We will see a lot of interesting work coming up.”

Abstract

Carbon nanotubes and metal oxide semiconductors have emerged as important materials for p-type and n-type thin-film transistors, respectively; however, realizing sophisticated macroelectronics operating in complementary mode has been challenging due to the difficulty in making n-type carbon nanotube transistors and p-type metal oxide transistors. Here we report a hybrid integration of p-type carbon nanotube and n-type indium–gallium–zinc-oxide thin-film transistors to achieve large-scale (Over 1,000 transistors for 501-stage ring oscillators) complementary macroelectronic circuits on both rigid and flexible substrates. This approach of hybrid integration allows us to combine the strength of p-type carbon nanotube and n-type indium–gallium–zinc-oxide thin-film transistors, and offers high device yield and low device variation. Based on this approach, we report the successful demonstration of various logic gates (inverter, NAND and NOR gates), ring oscillators (from 51 stages to 501 stages) and dynamic logic circuits (dynamic inverter, NAND and NOR gates).

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