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SiOnyx Employees Holding Black Silicon Wafers  (Source: The New York Times)
Black silicon offers up to 500 times more light sensitivity than normal silicon

Silicon is the foundation of our digital lives. Without silicon, we wouldn't have CPUs, digital cameras, video cameras, and many of the other items we take for granted in today's technologically advanced society. As such an important part of our lives, an advance in the basic silicon technology electrical products today are based on can have huge benefits and broad implications.

Harvard physicist Eric Mazur and his graduate students discovered a new type of silicon dubbed black silicon while conducting research in the late 1990's. The discovery of black silicon was made when Mazur and his students began thinking outside the parameters of research being conducted on grants from the U.S. government.

Mazur was conducting research funded by the Army Research Organization to explore catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces. Mazur told The New York Times, "I got tired of metals and was worrying that my Army funding would dry up. I wrote the new direction into a research proposal without thinking much about it — I just wrote it in; I don’t know why." The new direction was interesting enough to the U.S. government to continue providing funds.

The discovery of black silicon was made when a very powerful laser was shined on a silicon wafer with sulfur hexafluoride applied to it. The New York Times reports that the laser used in the discovery was able to briefly match the energy produced by the sun falling on the entire surface of the earth.

After the laser was shone on the wafer -- which looked black to the naked eye -- it was examined under an electron microscope. Under the microscope, the wafer was found to be covered with microscopic spikes.

Black silicon was later found to have extreme sensitivity to light and is on the verge of commercialization for use in night vision systems. James Carey, co-founder of SiOnyx, said, "We have seen a 100 to 500 times increase in sensitivity to light compared to conventional silicon detectors."

The material is also able to detect infrared light that is invisible to the current generation of silicon detectors. Black silicon is already being integrated into sensor-based chips. One huge advantage of black silicon is that its manufacturing process is compatible with the processes currently used in silicon wafer manufacturing.

The New York Times reports that in the future the high sensitivity black silicon could find its way into digital cameras and video cameras. Another potentially huge market for black silicon is in the photovoltaic cell industry.

SiOnyx is specific in that it will not get into the manufacturing of solar panels itself. The company is clear that it is only a technology provider. With the materials massive 100 to 500 times improvement in light sensitivity, it could prove revolutionary to the solar panel industry by greatly improving the efficiency at which light can be transformed into energy via a solar panel. Black silicon combined with new carbon battery technology could revolutionize solar power production.

SiOnyx says that a number of academic and corporate research groups are currently exploring black silicon. Someday soon, we may see a wealth of new products that are much more sensitive and offer considerably better performance compared to products using traditional silicon in their design.



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Information must be miss stated or confused.
By randomly on 10/13/2008 2:23:48 PM , Rating: 2
These claims don't make sense as stated. 100-500 times more sensitivity in silicon photodetectors? Silicon CCD sensors already have quantum efficiencies in the 50%-90% range. I think the information is taken out of context and does not include what conditions are being compared. Maybe it's an increase in sensitivity at some certain spectral band.

It's like the carbon nanotubes in GM Volt Lithium batteries article. As an Anode material they may hold twice as much lithium as the current graphite anodes, but the Cathode materials are the bottleneck and doubling the lithium capacity of the Anode may only improve the battery by 10%. It's not going to double the vehicle range....

Too little understanding and too much wishful thinking.




RE: Information must be miss stated or confused.
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 2:53:23 PM , Rating: 4
Sensitivity is not efficiency, it's a measure of the photon energy threshold required to knock loose an electron and activate the photovoltaic effect.


RE: Information must be miss stated or confused.
By randomly on 10/13/2008 8:52:38 PM , Rating: 2
So the 100-500 times improvement is essentially the improvement in quantum efficiency in the Infrared regions (800nm-1400nm)?

That was my point, it wasn't clear what wavelength they were claiming this huge sensitivity increase. It certainly couldn't be in the visible range.

This will have an impact on solar cells by widening the usable spectral band, but it's not going to do much for cameras and other visible light photodetectors.


RE: Information must be miss stated or confused.
By randomly on 10/13/2008 9:15:36 PM , Rating: 2
Apparently it has a photomultiplier effect under low bias conditions as well, so that does impact visible light applications. Still the big improvement appears to be infrared quantum efficiency.

If I hadn't gone and read up at the SiOnyx website about the whole thing I would never have gleaned any understanding from the DT article about what the actual improvements really meant.


By paydirt on 10/14/2008 10:44:05 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not a scientist.

100x to 500x is quite a wide spread. Just guessing here... the wide spread is due to them thinking about different applications/conditions.


Truly one of the great company names
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 2:17:02 PM , Rating: 2
SiOnyx:

An analogue for "black silicon", and homophonous with "psionics".

Photonics did a writeup of this company several months ago. It certainly looks promising, but one shouldn't get carried away by terms like "100-500X more sensitive". For solar applications, most of the additional absorption spectrum is in the infrared. I don't see these increasing overall conversion efficiencies by more than a third or so. If it can do that without a corresponding rise in costs, it will be a worthwhile breakthrough.

One possible downside is surface degradation. The vastly increased surface area will likely require some form of coating process to aid in long-term longevity.




By foolsgambit11 on 10/13/2008 2:33:40 PM , Rating: 2
I concur. A great company name. It's a bit... too good. Like, I can see SiOnyx being the evil corporation in some futuristic thriller movie.

I also agree with skepticism over sensitivity projections. In addition to questions about what portion of the spectrum to which it is more sensitive (have.. to... avoid... dangling... participles....), there's the fact that doubling the sensitivity doesn't usually result in doubling efficiency. After all, with current efficiencies above 1%, a 100% increase in efficiency would not be kosher. "In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!"

However, I do see this aiding in boosting efficiencies to potentially double what they are now - the question is, at what cost? And the corollary question - how long are patents for again?


RE: Truly one of the great company names
By UNCjigga on 10/13/2008 3:27:15 PM , Rating: 2
Masher--I have no idea what this special laser costs, but the Xconomy article about this tech said existing fabs and equipment would be fitted for production of dark silicon. Not requiring a new fab would be great, though no idea how much the laser and post-processing equipment will cost.


By ianweck on 10/13/2008 8:41:15 PM , Rating: 2
If it is in the semi-conductor industry, it'll cost plenty!


5-year
By Keeir on 10/13/2008 3:11:18 PM , Rating: 2
When reading articles like this, I always think it would be more informative to know which of these technologies made it the marketplace/had significant development and which were abandoned as unfeasiable or not commerically viable... Maybe once Dailytech is 5-6 years old we could get some refresher articles that detail the progress of some of the technology advances that Dailytech covers?




RE: 5-year
By nineball9 on 10/13/2008 7:22:56 PM , Rating: 2
For some info along that line, try reading MIT's Technology Review magazine. Available in print and online, it covers technology and business applications of developing technology. Moreover, it's written by people who understand science, technology and especially, business.


RE: 5-year
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 10:20:37 PM , Rating: 3
> "try reading MIT's Technology Review magazine"

Not unless TR has changed its stripes since I stopped reading. Their grasp of science and technology has always been shockingly poor, especially given it's being published by MIT.

They do considerably better on business and policy issues...but here their bias is so high, it obscures what factual information happens to get through.


Oh...and can you put that in my Canon EOS 6D?
By UNCjigga on 10/13/2008 1:26:48 PM , Rating: 2
Should revolutionize CMOS sensors for D-SLRs. Word.




By foolsgambit11 on 10/13/2008 2:20:28 PM , Rating: 3
Yeah, no kidding. ISO settings would be out of control. We'd have to start using prefixes. Kilo-ISO, mega-ISO....


Other Items
By zombiexl on 10/13/2008 4:37:58 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Without silicon, we wouldn't have CPUs, digital cameras, video cameras, and many of the other items we take for granted in today's technologically advanced society.


What are you afraid of, just say it "porno boobs". The FCC isn't monitoring this website, are they?




RE: Other Items
By blaster5k on 10/14/2008 10:15:08 AM , Rating: 3
That's silicone -- not silicon.


Anti Silicon
By Discord on 10/13/2008 1:13:58 PM , Rating: 2
Unfortunately if this dark silicon ever comes into contact with our proto-silicon, the resulting reaction could destroy the world!




By UNCjigga on 10/13/2008 1:23:22 PM , Rating: 2
Hey GM, here's $40,000. Now gimme one of them there Volts with a SiOnyx solar recharge roof and carbon battery. Kthxbye.




That sounds great.
By William Gaatjes on 10/13/2008 1:47:21 PM , Rating: 2
And we start using a greenhouse gas to fight the effects of greenhouses gasses : sulfur hexafluoride. Science is wonderfull. I sure hope greenpeace is not going to block this technology. At least it is not generally toxic for it is also used for the darth vader voice.

Keep up the good work.




Could could could
By kontorotsui on 10/13/08, Rating: 0
RE: Could could could
By Davelo on 10/13/2008 5:42:42 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly 3. It was the speculation part of the article.


gotta catchem all!
By on 10/13/08, Rating: -1
makes no sense
By tanishalfelven on 10/13/08, Rating: -1
RE: makes no sense
By tanishalfelven on 10/13/2008 1:30:46 PM , Rating: 2
energy was meant to be power.
oops.


RE: makes no sense
By Aeonic on 10/13/2008 1:34:45 PM , Rating: 2
A "AAA" battery has as much energy as hits the earth's surface.... for a very short period :)


RE: makes no sense
By twhittet on 10/13/2008 11:30:45 PM , Rating: 2
The Harvard Gazette - "Each pulse lasted a mere 100 millionths of a billionth of a second"

So, without that piece of important information, it may very well have been less misleading to say "The entire capacity of a AAA battery - at once". There have GOT to be easier to read measurements of laser strength than this!


RE: makes no sense
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 11:46:02 PM , Rating: 2
Well, taking the figures at face value, then "100 millionth of a billionth" would be a 100-femtosecond pulse. Assume power equal to the earth's solar energy budget (174 PW), gives a total pulse energy of 174*100 = 17,400 watts. That's obviously far too high.

Now, if we assume the actual pulse duration is 1/100 of a femtosecond ("a hundredth of a millionth of a billionth"), which would make the total power about 1.7 watts, which is probably closer to the actual value.


RE: makes no sense
By bbald123 on 10/13/2008 1:39:04 PM , Rating: 2
Wrong.

The laser output is over very small durations.


RE: makes no sense
By NicePants42 on 10/13/2008 2:59:34 PM , Rating: 1
From the article:
quote:
The discovery of black silicon was made when a very powerful laser was shined on a silicon wafer with sulfur hexafluoride applied to it. The New York Times reports that the laser used in the discovery was able to briefly match the energy produced by the sun falling on the entire surface of the earth.

After the laser was shone on the wafer -- which looked black to the naked eye -- it was examined under an electron microscope. Under the microscope, the wafer was found to be covered with microscopic spikes.

Black silicon was later found to have extreme sensitivity to light


I took that to mean that the laser was not involved in making the black silicon, but was used to get a rough idea of how light-sensitive the material was. Since large spikes were created with the laser, the material was obviously light-sensitive, so exact light sensitivity was determined later.

It sounds like the real trick to making black silicon is 'applying' sulfur hexafluoride (in that special little way?)

That's how I read it, although the article isn't very clear. Also, it seems we are to assume that the spikes were formed because the laser was able to burn off (or something) large amounts of material.


RE: makes no sense
By poodles on 10/14/2008 10:30:50 AM , Rating: 2
I think I understand it, I am going to go home and paint my cpus and gpus black and I will get 100-500 times more power from them! Do I use Acrylic or oil?


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