Black silicon may sound like the name for a new comic book hero but it certainly has attracted a lot of interest in the Blogosphere recently. Perhaps it is because it sounds like a mysteriously sinister material spawned from a cloak and dagger research facility operating out of an underground bunker in a desert somewhere.
In reality it is not a conspiracy theorist's plaything but a novel laser implant technique that claims to radically alter the photonic properties of semiconductor devices.
A highly light-absorbent material, black silicon claims to absorb nearly twice the visible light of regular silicon and detects infrared light that is normally invisible to silicon based devices, a capability that its developers claim will allow for dramatic performance enhancements in applications ranging from simple light detection to advanced digital imaging and solar energy.
Black silicon was actually discovered by Harvard University's Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics. And recently Harvard University's Office of Technology Development (OTD) and SiOnyx, Inc. announced that SiOnyx has exclusively licensed Harvard's portfolio of black silicon patents.
SiOnyx is producing devices that represent the first and only known, low cost, highly scalable platform for hyper-spectral imaging. The SiOnyx implant is compatible with established semiconductor manufacturing processes and introduces no new material. The company's patented process employs femtosecond laser processing of the target material resulting in a thin (300nm) photoconduction layer applicable to both biased (detection) and photovoltaic (power generation) applications.
The advocates of black silicon claim it could significantly increase the efficiency of modern solar panels. The majority of panels only convert around 8% of the energy falling on them into electricity. The top performers at best convert around 20%. The proponents of black silicon wafer have suggested that black silicon could push theoretical limits of photovoltaic cells and convert around 30 to 40 percent of the energy falling on it into electricity.
"Black silicon addresses the fundamental pain point in all photonics systems, the sensitivity to light," said Stephen Saylor, president and CEO of SiOnyx, Inc. "By demonstrating that the black silicon process cost effectively scales within the established semiconductor device manufacturing infrastructure, SiOnyx is poised to transform the $10bn+ light detection, imaging and photovoltaic markets by offering device manufactures a path to smaller, lighter and more efficient photonic systems."
Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard University's Senior Associate Provost and Chief Technology Development Officer, said: "The story of black silicon and SiOnyx is an excellent example of Harvard'' commitment to transfer promising, early-stage technology out of our research enterprise so it can be developed and utilized for the good of society."
Doesn't sound all that evil does it?
But look at it all from the conspiracy theorist's point of view. Black silicon is the result of Mazur's research that was originally funded by the Army Research Organization to explore catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces.
Then consider this statement made by Steve Saylor, chief executive of SiOnyx, who said: "We've been completely stealth, there hasn't been anything published about the company since its founding. We wanted to make sure we could scale the technology into a commercial foundry."
Add to that some of the performance claims made for the material have been somewhat confusing and you are well away down the road to X-File nirvana.
Top it off with bloggers starting to morph the name black silicon into the even more mysterious phrase 'dark silicon' and we have a fully fledged contender for Mulder and Scully to investigate.
Maybe the time it right for black silicon's backers to pursue a more traditional and 'open' approach to its marketing so that we can all clearly assess its performance claims and perhaps rest a little easier in our beds.