LEDs-On-Chips Will Give Us Lower Cost Optoelectronics

The LED is one of those fundamental building block components in electronics, something that’s been in the parts bin for decades. But while a simple LED costs pennies, that WS2812 or other fancy device is a bit expensive because internally it’s a hybrid of a silicon controller chip and several LEDs made from other semiconductor elements. Incorporating an LED on the same chip as its controller has remained something of a Holy Grail, and now an MIT team appear to have cracked it by demonstrating a CMOS device that integrates a practical silicon LED. It may not yet be ready for market but it already displays some interesting properties such as a very fast switching speed. Perhaps more importantly, further integration of what have traditionally been discrete components would have a huge impact on reducing manufacturing costs.

Anyone who has read up on the early history of LEDs will know that the path from the early-20th-century discoveries of semiconductor luminescence through the early commercial devices of the 1960s and up to the bright multi-hued devices of today has been a long one with many stages of the technology reaching the market. Thus these early experimental silicon LEDs produce light in the infrared spectrum often useful in producing sensors. Whether we’ll see an all-silicon Neopixel any time soon remains to be seen, but we can imagine that some sensors using LEDs could be incorporated on the same die as a microcontroller. It seems there’s plenty of potential for this invention.

This research was presented earlier this month at the IEDM Conference in a talk entitled Low Voltage, High Brightness CMOS LEDs. We were not able to find a published paper, we’d love read deeper so let us know in the comments below if you have info on when this will become available. In the meantime, anyone with any interest in LED technology should read about Oleg Losev, the inventor of the first practical LEDs.

SkyWater PDK Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 16 at noon Pacific for the CNC on the SkyWater PDK Hack Chat with Tim “mithro” Ansell, Mohamed Kassem, and Michael Gielda!

We’ve seen incredible strides made in the last decade or so towards democratizing manufacturing. Things that it once took huge, vertically integrated industries with immense factories at their disposal are now commonly done on desktop CNC machines and 3D printers. Open-source software has harnessed the brainpower of millions of developers into tools that rival what industry uses, and oftentimes exceeds them. Using these tools and combining them with things like on-demand PCB production and contract assembly services, and you can easily turn yourself into a legit manufacturer.

This model of pushing manufacturing closer to the Regular Joe and Josephine only goes so far, though. Your designs have pretty much been restricted to chips made by one or the other big manufacturers, which means pretty much anyone else could come up with the same thing. That’s all changing now thanks to SkyWater PDK, the first manufacturable, open-source process-design kit. With the tools in the PDK, anyone can design a chip for the SkyWater foundry’s 130-nm process.  And the best part? It’s free — as in beer. That’s right, you can get an open-source chip built for nothing during chip manufacturing runs that start as early as this November and go through 2021.

We’re sure this news will stir a bunch of questions, so Tim Ansell, a software engineer at Google who goes by the handle “mithro” will drop by the Hack Chat to discuss the particulars. He’ll be joined by Mohamed Kassem, CTO and co-founder of efabless.com, and Michael Gielda, VP of Business Development at Antmicro. Together they’ll field your questions about this exciting development, and they’ll walk us through just what it takes to turn your vision into silicon.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 16 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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What’s An Exciton?

If you read the scientific literature, you see the familiar subatomic particles you learned about in school: protons, neutrons, and electrons. If you are young enough, you see others you probably heard about, too, like quarks and gluons. But recently there has been a lot of buzz about excitons and even some transistor circuits demonstrated that use them. But what is an exciton?

It actually sounds like a subatomic particle, but it is a little more complicated than that. An exciton is a bound state of an electron and an electron hole and is technically a boson. You are probably familiar with the idea of an electron hole from semiconductor physics. Technically, it is a quasiparticle. The reason scientists are interested in the beast is that it can transport energy without transporting net electric charge. That is, the state itself is neutral, but also contains energy. Continue reading “What’s An Exciton?”

New Silicon Carbide Semiconductors Bring EV Efficiency Gains

After spending much of the 20th century languishing in development hell, electric cars have finally hit the roads in a big way. Automakers are working feverishly to improve range and recharge times to make vehicles more palatable to consumers.

With a strong base of sales and increased uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels, improvements are happening at a rapid pace. Oftentimes, change is gradual, but every so often, a brand new technology promises to bring a step change in performance. Silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductors are just such a technology, and have already begun to revolutionise the industry.

Mind The Bandgap

A graph showing the relationship between band gap and temperature for various phases of Silicon Carbide.

Traditionally, electric vehicles have relied on silicon power transistors in their construction. Having long been the most popular semiconductor material, new technological advances have opened it up to competition. Different semiconductor materials have varying properties that make them better suited for various applications, with silicon carbide being particularly attractive for high-power applications. It all comes down to the bandgap.

Electrons in a semiconductor can sit in one of two energy bands – the valence band, or the conducting band. To jump from the valence band to the conducting band, the electron needs to reach the energy level of the conducting band, jumping the band gap where no electrons can exist. In silicon, the bandgap is around 1-1.5 electron volts (eV), while in silicon carbide, the band gap of the material is on the order of 2.3-3.3 eV. This higher band gap makes the breakdown voltage of silicon carbide parts far higher, as a far stronger electric field is required to overcome the gap. Many contemporary electric cars operate with 400 V batteries, with Porsche equipping their Taycan with an 800 V system. The naturally high breakdown voltage of silicon carbide makes it highly suited to work in these applications.

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Perovskites: Not Just For Solar Cells Anymore

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll know there’s a long history of advances in materials science that get blown far out of proportion by both the technical and the popular media. Most of the recent ones seem to center on the chemistry of carbon, particularly graphene and nanotubes. Head back a little in time and superconductors were all the rage, and before that it was advanced ceramics, semiconductors, and synthetic diamonds. There’s always some new miracle material to be breathlessly and endlessly reported on by the media, with hopeful tales of how one or the other will be our salvation from <insert catastrophe du jour here>.

While there’s no denying that each of these materials has led to huge advancements in science, industry, and the quality of life for billions, the development cycle from lab to commercialization is generally a tad slower than the press would have one believe. And so when a new material starts to gain traction in the headlines, as perovskites have recently, we feel like it’s a good opportunity to take a close look, to try to smooth out the ups and downs of the hype curve and manage expectations.

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In Praise Of The App Note

When I am at a loss for an explanation in the world of electronics, I reach for my well-thumbed Horowitz & Hill. When H&H fails me which is not that often, the chances are I’ll find myself looking in an application note from a semiconductor company who is in cut-throat competition with its rivals in a bid for my attention. These companies have an extensive sales and marketing effort, part of which comes in the dissemination of knowledge.

Razor blades may be sold to young men with images of jet fighters and a subtle suggestion that a clean-shaven guy gets his girl, but semiconductor brands are sold by piquing the engineer’s interest with information. To that end, companies become publishing houses in praise of their products. They produce not only data sheets that deal with individual device, but app notes documents which cover a wider topic and tell the story of why this manufacturer’s parts are naturally the best in the world.

These app notes frequently make for fascinating reading, and if you haven’t found them yet you should head for the documentation sections of semiconductor biz websites and seek some of them out.

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Julius Lilienfeld And The First Transistor

Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.

But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of  Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.

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