Study Suggests Coal Could Find New Uses in Semiconductors

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) have found that coal may have applications in the electronics industry. NETL researchers have discovered a way of using coal in the semiconductor supply chain that could open the door to an era of 2D materials semiconductors. The research team created ultrathin insulating films using coal that have shown significant potential as an insulating material for 2D semiconductors.

Silicon semiconductors have been used to build transistors for electronic devices for well over half a century. As the world’s demand for smaller and more powerful semiconductors has increased, so has the range of materials that could potentially serve as transistor substrates.

Scientists have spent the past several years studying silicon semiconductor alternatives including 2D (flat) materials such as molybdenum disulfide and graphene.

One of the research firms involved in the NETL study set out to develop alternative advanced and high-value uses for the polluting fuel. With most of the world looking to replace coal with cleaner alternatives, the researchers may have stumbled onto an application that could simultaneously advance the semiconductor sector and give coal alternative uses in the development of transistors.

Transistors are critical electric components that serve as building blocks in computer processors by carrying out fundamental calculations. They are made of semiconductors and an insulating material to prevent interference. Suppliers are finding it increasingly hard to source enough silicon to keep the supply chain going even as advances in computation call for more and more computational power, requiring more advanced semiconductors.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will increase by two times every year with minimal cost increases. However, Qing Cao, the study coauthor and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor of materials science, notes that Moore’s Law is slowing down alongside a significantly higher demand for computational power due to emerging applications such as machine learning.

2D semiconductors may be able to bridge the gap and allow suppliers to develop semiconductors that are powerful enough to output the computational power needed by applications such as artificial intelligence (AI). They are called 2D because they are incredibly flat. Graphene, for instance, is so thin that one sheet could just be one atom thick, allowing for a significantly reduced length as well.

Using coal to create thin, insulating filaments for 2D semiconductors such as graphene and molybdenum disulfide “drastically improved performance,” the researchers reported. According to study coauthor and senior NETL senior scientist Congjun Wang, the fossil fuel is a good starting material because it has a rich nanostructure that makes it easier to convert coal into an insulator.

The fuel’s abundance in the United States also means that the country could have a relatively cost-effective means of fortifying its supply chain.

It isn’t clear whether this newly discovered potential use of coal would be able to utilize all the coal that leading extraction companies such as Arch Resources Inc. (NYSE: ARCH) have been producing.

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