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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