Seeking a Sustainable Future in Low Energy Technologies

UNSW physicists are key in the operation of the Australian Centre of Excellence dedicated to a sustainable future - Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET). 

FLEET research initiatives bring together over a hundred Australian and international experts with the goal to develop a new generation of ultra-low energy electronics

The impetus behind such work is the increasing challenge of energy used in computation, which already absorb 5–8% of global electricity, doubling each decade. 

For 50 years, society’s ever-increasing demand for more computing has been largely met with incremental improvements in conventional, silicon-based (CMOS) computing technology – ever-smaller, ever-faster, ever-more efficient chips. We refer to this constant shrinking of silicon components as ‘Moore’s law’. Moore’s Law, however, is ending (explained here by UNSW’s Dr Daisy Wang). 

Without a ‘beyond CMOS’ solution, energy will become the limiting factor on further computational growth in the next couple of decades.   And, the potential of future technologies - such as Artificial Intelligence, an Internet of Things, and ‘self-drive’ vehicles - will be truncated. 

“For computing to continue to grow, we need a new generation of electronics that dissipates much less wasted energy,” explains FLEET Deputy Director, Professor Alex Hamilton (UNSW Physics).  

FLEET-UNSW physicists are now tackling this challenge.  Their approaches range from experimental, material-science-based, to theoretical.  Collaborative efforts between members of the Centre are generating beneficial spin-off applications along the way. 

For example, a recent materials-science study led by UNSW Physics PhD Student, Yonatan Ashlea Alava (pictured above), developed semiconductor fabrication advances that could improve electronic operation in high-frequency, ultra-small electronic devices, quantum dots, and qubit applications in quantum computing. 

Another study, on the theoretical side, confirmed the potential for exotic quantum materials known as topological insulators to substantially reduce the energy consumed by computing, finding that topological transistors could reduce operating (gate) voltage by half, and the energy consumption by a factor of four. 

Topological materials (recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016) represent a paradigm shift in condensed-matter physics. Topological insulators conduct electricity in one-way paths along their edges, without the ‘back-scattering’ of electrons that dissipates energy in conventional electronics. FLEET’s world-leading discoveries and study of topological materials are led by UNSW FLEET leader, Professor Alex Hamilton

FLEET researchers also pursue and active science outreach program, including: running lab tours for professional groups such as Materials Australia; conducting in-class and in-lab schools outreach demonstrations (successfully adapted for covid-safe delivery in 2020); delivering a week-long Sydney Science Festival booth to share physics with over 9000 local school students; producing video resources; and helping to achieve FLEET’s year-10 future-computing unit goals. 

The FLEET Research Group at UNSW (known as a FLEET NODE) connects seven investigators from the School of Physics, the School of Materials Science and Engineering, and the School of Chemical Engineering with colleagues in six other Australian universities and 19 other Australian and international science centres.  

More FLEET UNSW stories can be found on the FLEET Centre website and shared on Twitter @FLEETCentre