News Article

Startup Advances Carbon-Nanotube Chips
Date: Nov 19, 2014
Author: Don Clark
Source: Wall Street Journal ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: Carbonics Inc of Marina Del Rey, CA

Scientists have experimented for years with new materials for making computer chips, preparing for a day when silicon and other widely used materials outlive their usefulness. A tiny company called Carbonics hopes to be among the first to make useful chips from carbon.

The Los Angeles-area startup on Wednesday is disclosing plans to apply the molecular structures known as carbon nanotubes to a novel area: radio components for mobile devices.

Carbon, like silicon, is cheap and abundant. Some researchers have proposed using it in a form called graphene, which is essentially a sheet of carbon one atom thick. Nanotubes, by contrast, are essentially carbon sheets rolled into microscopic cylinders.

Well-heeled companies like IBM have been working with both forms of carbon. But the computing giant has stressed nanotubes not for amplifying radio signals but but for making smaller, faster transistors for use in microprocessors.

Chips used in radio devices, meanwhile, are usually made from materials such as gallium arsenide rather than silicon. Carbonics CEO Kos Galatsis says nanotubes are better for that application because they conduct electronic signals much more efficiently. "There is less heating up, less wasting energy," he says.

Carbonics is based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., but carries out development work in labs at the University of California at Los Angeles. It has just seven employees.

Galatsis, on leave from a position as a UCLA adjunct associate professor of materials science and engineering, says efficiency gains from nanotubes could lead to much longer battery life in mobile devices, on the order of charging a smartphone once a week rather than once a day.

Such devices could also be smaller, because one radio chip could be used for multiple kinds of wireless connections; today's devices often have different chips to connect via Wi-Fi, 2G and 3G, Galatsis says.

Carbonics says it has developed proprietary ways to exploit nanotubes, which it buys from commercial suppliers and spins onto the surface of silicon wafers. It is currently making transistor prototypes to order for potential customers and expects to build products using contract manufacturing services in the second half of 2015.

The company licenses its technology from UCLA, tracing its lineage to research funded by the industry-backed Semiconductor Research Corp. consortium and the U.S. Air Force.

Galatsis is quick to acknowledge that Carbonics has not solved all the problems associated with nanotubes. The company and other backers of carbon-based technology also face the challenge that chip makers keep finding ways to extend the life of more familiar materials. Then there's the fact that few investors have an appetite for funding semiconductor startups.

One lesson is the fate of RF Nano. The startup worked since 2005 to commercialize nanotubes based on technology from the University of California at Irvine, raising $10 million in venture funding and $2 million from other sources, says Peter Burke, a co-founder. It recently ceased operations due to a lack of further funding, he says.

Carbonics has received $5.5 million from Taqnia, an investment firm associated with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. "We are funded for two years," Galatsis says, and he expresses optimism that the company can raise more money as needed.