ARKANSAS, January 5 (Future Headlines)- In a remarkable breakthrough, researchers from the US National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company have demonstrated the transformative potential of coal in advancing next-generation electronic devices. By converting coal char into nanoscale carbon disks, researchers have successfully created atomically thin membranes, unlocking possibilities for cutting-edge technologies such as two-dimensional transistors and memristors. This groundbreaking research, published in the journal Communications Engineering, challenges conventional perceptions of coal, positioning it as a valuable resource for building high-performance, ultra-thin electronic components.

Contrary to its conventional image, coal emerges as a key player in the pursuit of smaller, faster, and more efficient electronics. Researchers emphasize that processing techniques can transform coal into high-purity materials, only a few atoms thick, with unique atomic structures ideal for advanced electronics. The quest for smaller and superior electronics involves the development of devices with materials just one or two atoms thick. Ultrathin semiconductors have been extensively studied; however, achieving atomically thin insulators is equally critical for constructing functional electronic devices.

Disordered atomic structures in carbon layers derived from coal prove to be excellent insulators for constructing two-dimensional devices. The study demonstrates that coal-derived carbon layers, also known as carbon dots, can serve as atomically thin insulators, blocking electric currents in devices like transistors and memristors. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign team, led by Qing Cao, leveraged coal-derived carbon layers as the gate dielectric in two-dimensional transistors, showcasing device operating speeds that were over two times faster with lower energy consumption. The absence of dangling bonds in these layers enhances device performance by preventing undesirable electrical currents.

Unlike other atomically thin materials, coal-derived carbon layers are amorphous, lacking a regular crystalline structure. This amorphous nature eliminates boundaries between crystalline regions, preventing “leakage” and undesired electrical currents, leading to reduced power consumption during device operations. Traditional insulators with dangling bonds act as traps, slowing down the transport of mobile charges in transistors. Coal-derived carbon layers overcome this challenge with their amorphous structure, providing efficient insulation without compromising performance.

The adoption of coal-derived carbon layers in two-dimensional transistors results in enhanced device speed and reduced energy consumption. Coal’s integration into cutting-edge microelectronics represents a pioneering collaboration between low-tech coal and high-tech electronics. Memristors, capable of storing and operating on data to boost AI technology, benefit from the fast formation of conductive filaments with low energy consumption when utilizing ultrathin coal-derived carbon layers. Atomic size rings in these layers contribute to improved data storage fidelity and reliability.

The coal industry’s participation in clean technology extends beyond electronics, as seen in initiatives like on-site hydrogen production. Transforming coal into high-purity materials aligns with broader sustainability goals. The on-site production of hydrogen from coal-derived carbon layers emphasizes the importance of utilizing renewable energy sources for electrolysis. Environmental responsibility remains a cornerstone in the integration of coal into clean technologies.

The developed devices present a proof-of-principle for the utilization of coal-derived carbon layers in two-dimensional electronics. The focus now shifts to demonstrating the scalability of such devices for large-scale manufacturing. Collaboration with Taiwan Semiconductor reflects the semiconductor industry’s keen interest in the capabilities of two-dimensional devices. Future collaborations aim to develop fabrication processes for coal-based carbon insulators suitable for industrial settings.

Amazon’s foray into on-site hydrogen production sets a precedent for other large corporations. The success of this initiative may influence the broader adoption of hydrogen fuel within the logistics and e-commerce sectors. Ongoing advancements in hydrogen technology, coupled with collaborative efforts between companies like Amazon and Plug Power, will play a crucial role in shaping the future of clean energy.

Reporting by Moe Khaled; Editing by Sarah White