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Scientists in Sweden make breakthrough with 'doping' semiconductors: 'It's a very promising approach'

"We are at the beginning of trying to fully understand the mechanism behind it."

"We are at the beginning of trying to fully understand the mechanism behind it."

Photo Credit: Linköping University

A quick description of battery science coming out of Sweden might leave you thinking that something shady is going on in the lab at Linköping University.

That's because the researchers are doping semiconductors. But they aren't up to anything nefarious. Rather, the work could result in cheaper, sustainable, and more conductive organic devices, often called microchips. These units are "the brains" of modern electronics, per the industry's trade association. 

At Linköping, scientists are using air as a dopant — a funny term used to describe an element added to semiconductors to increase performance. Oxygen is a cheap, easy-to-attain alternative to other common dopants, but it has been inefficient in the role to date. 

"We believe this method could significantly influence the way we dope organic semiconductors. All components are affordable, easily accessible, and potentially environmentally friendly, which is a prerequisite for future sustainable electronics," Linköping Associate Professor Simone Fabiano said in a lab report. 

When adding abundant oxygen as the dopant, the experts found that using light to "activate" the process improves the chip's performance. Strangely, the method has similarities to how a plant uses sunlight.  

"Our approach was inspired by nature, as it shares many analogies with photosynthesis, for example. In our method, light activates a photocatalyst, which then facilitates electron transfer from a typically inefficient dopant to the organic semiconductor material," Fabiano said in the summary. 

The photocatalyst is a salt solution, in which the doped organic chip is soaked for a short time. After being pulled from the brine. The result is a positively doped (the process can also create a negative dope, in reference to charge type) conductive plastic, using mainly oxygen and air. 

The process works because it "shuttles" electrons "to material in the presence of sacrificial weak oxidants or reductants." The team said it's a novel approach in organic electronics. And It all happens at room temperature, per the research report. 

Semiconductors are often made of silicon. The Swedish experts report that chips made from conductive plastics also have the potential to power digital displays, solar cells, sensors, and even for energy storage, potentially doing the job better. 

Importantly, the chips created with this process have better conductivity than standard ones. Now the team is working to process chips using water as a cleaner solvent. 

Sustainability in the electronics industry is crucial to limiting our e-waste, predicted by data collector Statista to hit 88 million tons a year globally by 2030. London's Jiva Materials is creating circuit boards that can be dissolved in hot water so the precious metals included in them can be recycled. Otherwise, the boards are often burned, as is the case with 40% of London's e-waste, per Jiva. This results in harmful, toxic fumes and planet-warming gasses. 

Adding more sunlight and air to the electronics field could help make it sustainable and planet-friendly, at least for the Linköping microchips.

"We are at the beginning of trying to fully understand the mechanism behind it and what other potential application areas exist. But it's a very promising approach showing that photocatalytic doping is a new cornerstone in organic electronics," Fabiano said

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