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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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From Black Gold to Tech Marvel: Coal's New Role in Electronics

  • Researchers developed a process to convert coal into nanoscale carbon dots, ideal for constructing atomically thin electronic devices like transistors and memristors.
  • Coal-derived carbon layers function as excellent insulators in two-dimensional devices, enhancing device speed and reducing energy consumption.
  • The involvement of major research institutions and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company indicates serious efforts towards industrial-scale production of these coal-based devices.

A joint research effort from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company has shown how coal can play a vital role in next-generation electronic devices.

Coal is an abundant resource in the United States that has, unfortunately, contributed to air pollution through its use as a combustible fossil fuel. As the country transitions to other means of energy production, it will be important to consider and reevaluate coal’s economic role.

Coal may actually play a vital role in next-generation electronic devices.

Qing Cao, a U. of I. materials science & engineering professor and a co-lead of the collaboration said, “Coal is usually thought of as something bulky and dirty, but the processing techniques we’ve developed can transform it into high-purity materials just a couple of atoms thick. Their unique atomic structures and properties are ideal for making some of the smallest possible electronics with performance superior to state-of-the art.”

A process developed by the NETL first converts coal char into nanoscale carbon disks called “carbon dots” that the U. of I. research group demonstrated can be connected to form atomically thin membranes for applications in both two-dimensional transistors and memristors, technologies that will be critical to constructing more advanced electronics.

The results have been reported in the journal Communications Engineering.

Perfect for 2D electronics

In the ongoing search for smaller, faster and more efficient electronics, the final step will be devices made with materials just one or two atoms thick. It is impossible for devices to be smaller than this limit, and their small scale often makes them operate much quicker and consume far less energy.

While ultrathin semiconductors have been extensively studied, it is also necessary to have atomically thin insulators – materials that block electric currents – to construct working electronic devices like transistors and memristors.

Atomically thin layers of carbon with disordered atomic structures can function as an excellent insulator for constructing two-dimensional devices. The researchers in the collaboration have shown that such carbon layers can be formed from carbon dots derived from coal char.

To demonstrate their capabilities, the U. of I. group led by Cao developed two examples of two-dimensional devices.

“It’s really quite exciting, because this is the first time that coal, something we normally see as low-tech, has been directly linked to the cutting edge of microelectronics,” Cao said.

Transistor dielectric

 Cao’s group used coal-derived carbon layers as the gate dielectric in two-dimensional transistors built on the semimetal graphene or semiconductor molybdenum disulfide to enable more than two times faster device operating speed with lower energy consumption.

Like other atomically thin materials, the coal-derived carbon layers do not possess “dangling bonds,” or electrons that are not associated with a chemical bond.

These sites, which are abundant on the surface of conventional three-dimensional insulators, alter their electrical properties by effectively functioning as “traps,” slowing down the transport of mobile charges and thus the transistor switching speed.

However, unlike other atomically thin materials, the new coal-derived carbon layers are amorphous, meaning that they do not possess a regular, crystalline structure.

They therefore do not have boundaries between different crystalline regions that serve as conduction pathways leading to “leakage,” where undesired electrical currents flow through the insulator and cause substantial additional power consumption during device operations.

Memristor filament

 Another application Cao’s group considered is memristors – electronic components capable of both storing and operating on data to greatly enhance the implementation of AI technology.

These devices store and represent data by modulating a conductive filament formed by electrochemical reactions between a pair of electrodes with the insulator sandwiched in between.

The researchers found that the adoption of ultrathin coal-derived carbon layers as the insulator allows the fast formation of such filament with low energy consumption to enable high device operating speed with low power.

Moreover, atomic size rings in these coal-derived carbon layers confine the filament to enhance the reproducible device operations for enhanced data storage fidelity and reliability.

From research to production


 The new devices developed by the Cao group provide proof-of-principle for the use of coal-derived carbon layers in two-dimensional devices.

What remains is to be shown is that such devices can be manufactured on large scales.

CAI commented, “The semiconductor industry, including our collaborators at Taiwan Semiconductor, is very interested in the capabilities of two-dimensional devices, and we’re trying to fulfill that promise. Over the next few years, the U. of I. will continue to collaborate with NETL to develop a fabrication process for coal-based carbon insulators that can be implemented in industrial settings.”


With Taiwan Semiconductor involved at this early of a point makes clear that manufacturing interest loading to the market demand is already there. The list of highly accomplished research institutions assures that this a very serious effort. And the results have just been published.

While the demand for coal isn’t going to suddenly increase, the possible electronic devices becoming re-engineered and the devices yet to be released and those in development are surely going to be more powerful in productivity at lower power rates and hopefully at lower costs.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 04 2024 said:
    While this technical marvel will help prolong the longevity of use of coal, the most cost-effective and most important use of coal is electricity generation as being the cheapest generator of electricity in the world.

    I am convinced that coal will continue to play a major role as a vital energy source well into the future particularly if more attention is given to wider use of carbon-catching technology.

    For countries of the world like China, and India who are major users of coal, coal provides them with energy security, affordability and sustainability.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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