The U.S. accused a Chinese MIT professor of spying. Now cleared, he’s helped discover what may be the ‘best semiconductor material ever found’

A team of researchers has discovered what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calls the "best semiconductor material ever made," even better than silicon, the material used in almost every computer chip in the world.
In July, scientists from MIT, the University of Houston and other institutions announced they had proven that cubic boron arsenide conducts heat and electricity better than silicon, opening new possibilities for smaller and faster chips. The team includes Chinese-born Professor Gang Chen, the former head of MIT's mechanical engineering department, who was the subject of a year-long investigation by the Justice Department before the agency dropped the spying charges due to lack of evidence.
It could be decades before cubic boron arsenide-based semiconductors are used in commercially available chips - if they even prove viable. But ultimately, the new material can help designers push the natural limitations of current models to make better, faster, and smaller chips, and its discovery is the kind of research the US is risking pursuing with a now-dissolved crackdown on experts like Chen miss .
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Cubic boron arsenide
Despite its ubiquity in the chip industry, silicon isn't the best semiconductor out there. For one, it doesn't conduct heat very well, meaning chips and consumer devices often need to include expensive cooling systems or risk overheating.
Cubic boron arsenide conducts heat 10 times better than silicon, according to the July study. "Heat is a major bottleneck for electronics," Chen said in a press release accompanying the study, calling the new material a potential "game changer."
The study also found that cubic boron arsenide is a better conductor than silicon of both electrons and its positively charged counterpart, the "electron hole". The latter is a particularly glaring weakness of silicon, limiting the speed of silicon-based semiconductors.
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Chip designers are beginning to reach the natural limits of silicon in their quest for smaller and faster chips. Researchers are speaking publicly about the end of Moore's Law, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's 1975 prediction that the number of transistors in a chip would double every two years, which has been a guiding star for the semiconductor industry ever since.
Researchers are looking for ways to get more speed out of new computers through new materials for chips or new technologies such as quantum computing. Materials like cubic boron arsenide — assuming they can be commercialized — could help designers make even smaller and faster computer chips.
However, there is still a long way to go before cubic boron arsenide can be used outside of the laboratory. The material was only made in small batches, and researchers needed special equipment to study its properties, according to MIT.
"Silicon is the workhorse of the entire industry," Chen said in the release, noting that scientists have spent decades developing methods to purify silicon to the level required for chip manufacture and a purity of 99.99999999% or to reach the so-called ten-nine level. But Chen said if future research could overcome the barriers to industrial production, cubic boron arsenide could become "a promising candidate for next-generation electronics."
allegations of espionage
The study is also a significant fortune-changing for one of its prominent authors, Chen, who was a high-profile target of a Trump-era initiative to investigate allegations of Chinese espionage.
The US Department of Justice, under a program called the China Initiative, accused dozens of Chinese and Chinese-American academics of hiding their ties to Chinese institutions to share advanced technology with Beijing.
Authorities arrested Chen, who was born in China and became a US citizen in 2000, in January 2021. He was accused of failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutions when submitting grant applications to the Department of Energy. "This was not just about greed, it was about loyalty to China," said the American at the time. Massachusetts attorney at the time, Andrew Lelling, claimed.
The scientific community, particularly at MIT, harshly criticized the arrest. MIT faculty wrote in an open letter that "Professor Chen's defense is the defense of the scientific enterprise we all hold dear - we are all Gang Chen."
The Justice Department under the Biden administration dropped charges against Chen in January 2022 after DOE officials revealed that Chen was never required to make the disclosures he was accused of failing to do. In a statement released when the charges were dropped, Chen accused the DOJ of continuing to instill "unjustified fear in the academic community."
A month after Chen's case was dropped, the DOJ dissolved the China Initiative. "We helped create a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal behavior related to [China], or that we include people with racial, ethnic, or family ties to China in any way." Ways to see things differently,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen said at the time.
Scholars also argued that studies like Chen's discouraged academics - particularly from China - from moving to the US and denied the US an opportunity to benefit from their research. "It scares off talent," an MIT faculty member told WBUR in February.
Experts have pointed to the lack of qualified scientific and technical expertise as a key obstacle to US efforts to restore its R&D supremacy, including rebuilding its domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry. One study estimated that the US would need to increase its chip-making workforce by 50% to oust Asia as the center of chip-making -- talent that would have to come from overseas, including China.
This story was originally published on Fortune.com

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