Silicon is great. Our computers wouldn't work without it. But it's nearing the limits of what it can achieve — which is where molybdenite, the new kid on the chip, can take over to provide smaller, more efficient processors.
The problem with silicon is that it's not possible use layers less than two nanometres thick in chips. If you do, the silicon can oxidise and the electronic properties of the material crumble into a useless lump of, well, silicon dioxide.
But there's a new chip material in town, and it goes by the name of molybdenum disulphide. A fairly abundant, naturally occurring mineral, its structure and semi-conducting properties mean it can compete directly with silicon. It can even give graphene — perhaps the world's most exciting material — a run for its money.
But what makes it exciting in chip terms is that it can be worked in layers only three atoms thick. Unlike silicon, at these scales it is still stable. That means it should be possible to make chips that are at least three times smaller than the current standard.
A team of researchers from the Laboratory of Nanoscale Electronics and Structures (LANES) have gone so far as actually making a prototype molybdenite chip. Andras Kis, director of LANES, says:
"We have built an initial prototype, putting from two to six serial transistors in place, and shown that basic binary logic operations were possible, which proves that we can make a larger chip."
Because molybdenite can be used in much smaller quantities on chips than silicon, it means that we can expect smaller, more efficient processors made from the stuff.
I haven't mentioned the best part yet, though: molybdenite also has mechanical properties that mean that it's flexible. Not flexible, versatile. No: flexible, bendable. That could mean devices that don't just flex but, you know, actually fold are just round the corner. [EurekAlert!]