Citadel dean’s idea takes off at warp speed


If computers run a 100 times faster in the next few years — and they might — a slice of the credit goes to Lok C. Lew Yan Voon, “the father of silicene.”

How big a slice? One atom thick.

A University of Texas computer engineer just figured out a way to produce silicene circuit chip transistors. If that can be done commercially, the breakthrough could mean advancements such as:

More extensive DNA sequencing

More hydrogen storage for fuel-cell cars

More sensitive chemical sensors that detect potentially lethal stuff like carbon monoxide.

And a lot more, as well as making computers lightning-fast. It would be “not incrementally better. It’s qualitatively better. It’s radically different,” said Lok, The Citadel’s dean of the School of Science and Mathematics. He knows because he wrote the theoretical equation that proved it could be done.

Computer transistor speeds had plateaued in 2007, when Lok published his equation. That means no matter how good circuit chips become, they can only switch, or do tasks, so fast.

So the search was on for a better transistor material than silicon. One of the “hot” research trends was graphene, a carbon-based material. But there were a few problems. One of them was that installing carbon transistors would mean costly reconstruction of entire systems designed to work with silicon.

At the time, Lok was working with a student on a project trying to built carbon nanotubes — essentially incredibly thin cylinders. When the carbon proved too difficult, Lok suggested they try to substitute a silicon material. And the light came on.

If you could make silicene, it would be a two-dimensional material just like graphene — a sheet literally one atom thick. Like graphene, it would have a crucial linear rather than quadratic “energy dispersion.” In other words, the electric impulses going through it would travel faster, much faster, than through silicon.

And, being a form of silicon, silicene would mean nobody had to reconstruct computers.

By 2010, when the creators of graphene won the Nobel Prize for physics, Lok’s work was being mentioned alongside them. He had been cited in an impressive 300 papers, making the Mauritius native a worldwide figure in a field so obscure that few people even heard of him.

Lok, now 51, recalls an aunt in England seeing his photo in a tabloid next to the Nobel winners and asking how come he hadn’t won the Nobel yet.

There was, naturally, another problem. Like graphene, silicene isn’t very stable and incredibly delicate to work with. So far, neither holds together very long. One way to think of a material an atom thick is lead from a pencil. When you write, lead flakes from the pencil create the lines. A single flake, Lok, notes, is an atom thick.

Silicene transistors, critics say, could never happen.

In the Texas experiment, the transistor lasted only a few minutes, according to Nature, in an article that credits Lok as “the father of silicene.”

Somewhat frustratingly, Lok’s work is not cited in the Texas breakthrough, although researchers who cited his work are. But he’s OK with leaving the lab work to others. He’s now working on more advanced theory. He talks about a great mathematician about whom it was said, don’t let him in the lab — he’ll break everything.

“I’m like that,” Lok said smiling. “I can’t take a measurement. I can’t fix a doorknob.”

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