Shaping the future of electronic devices
Professor Lance Lain-Jong Li, Professor, Chair of Future Electronics, Department of Mechnical Engineering
While increasingly people’s daily lives depend on apps on their mobile phones, software development is but one of the many concerns of scientists. Nanomaterials, 2D chips or even chips empowered by artificial intelligence are among the ‘hardware’ that could bring vast changes.
For more than 20 years Taiwan-born Professor Lance Lain-Jong Li has sought ways to improve on the materials used for gadgets and other devices. The goal is far more than driving down costs but also to provide more powerful functions while combating climate change through cleaner, more efficient energy consumption.
A major breakthrough came in 2012 while he was an associate professor at Taiwan’s prestigious Academia Sinica, years after he graduated from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. He found the way to grow large-area and single-crystal 2D TMD monolayer such as MoS2 using simple chemical vapour deposition (CVD). His team also revealed the fundamental approach, atomic edge epitaxy, to grow single-crystal 2D materials in a wafer scale. “It was very exciting,” he recalled. “We received a lot of feedback from scientists from around, all requesting the sample, a lot of materials from us.”
The former President of the Academia Sinica, Yuan Tseh Lee, the renowned chemist who was the first Taiwanese to win a Nobel Prize, was an inspirational figure to Li. Lee’s accomplishment and strong commitment to science caused him to pursue a research career as a chemist.
It has been his long-held dream to accelerate technological development. In 2017, he joined TSMC, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of semiconductor chips, based in his home town of Hsinchu in Taiwan. There he led a team to explore the possibilities of replacing Si transistors with a few promising 2D materials for manufacturing compact and low-energy-consuming nanodevices.
Leaving the private sector
He returned to the academia after three years at TSMC, devoting himself to non-commercial basic research, driven still by the dream to unlock more mysteries that could pave the way for developing high-performance electronics.
“Coming back to university is a good choice because I believe that some of the things we’re developing will work in the future so maybe we should do it ourselves. Sometimes the focus of companies is different from ours. At university, we can leverage the power of students, and post-docs who share our dreams,” said Professor Li, who obtained his PhD in condensed matter physics from Oxford University, and taught previously at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
In 2021, he joined the University of Hong Kong (HKU) as Professor, Chair of Future Electronics of Department of Mechanical Engineering. Hong Kong’s open culture and convenient geographical location are among the factors that caused him to make the move.
Initially his research work was progressing slowly due to the impact of Covid restrictions. He had to spend much time under quarantine as well when travelling back to Taiwan. But the presence of research talents here and Hong Kong’s well-established connections with the international community was helpful, he said.
Professor Li joined HKU in 2021
Collaborations help advance research
When it comes to carrying out scientific projects, an area which Hong Kong lags behind other countries is infrastructure namely the hardware and facilities, says Professor Li, and that makes collaborations with overseas institutes more necessary.
Exchanges with overseas scientists is also a source of inspiration. “In the field of fabrication of electronics, the research environment in Hong Kong is not at an advanced stage, so it is a good strategy to travel more, connect more with overseas scientists, to have some exchanges of ideas. We cannot close the door; it is very important to have new ideas that stimulate each other.”
Internationally, companies and research community have been striving to look for alternatives to silicon, the material computer chips are made from. The 2D material explored by Professor Li is believed to possess huge potential, but far more work and time are needed to develop the material and also make it applicable to the making of electronic devices.
What is certain is the trend of downsizing products, with efficient, high power functions packed into small devices. In time, large computers could become a thing of the past. “In order to have very useful software you need to have very powerful hardware, memory, and larger computation; if the hardware is very slow you cannot support the apps. Hardware breakthrough will give you more powerful computations,” he said.
3D Integrated Circuit experts shared the state-of-the-art research results at JC STEM Lab of Advanced 3D Integrated Circuit Technology at the Yam Pak Building of HKU
A host of issues to be tackled
Part of his work now is to improve on his previously discovered growth method, make it more efficient and controllable. “If we have strong arguments that this material will work better than silicon, then the question is can we make it on a larger scale? In silicon use, the industry is usually looking at 12 inches, so can we make the material as large as what the industry is expecting?”
There are also other fundamental issues to be tackled, including the development of new machines to make the new material, and the creation of an energy-saving production and consumption cycle. That involves diverse research that could take years to yield results.
“If there's a chance that new materials can actually decrease the power consumption significantly, even if it is a 50% saving in energy, that is still worth exploring.”
In his view, future electronics should always address concerns about their impact on the environment. “The production of chips now actually constitutes the most part of energy consumption,” he said. “We need to think about how to use clean, low carbon energy. How do we get the energy? That’s another question, that is also what engineers need to really think about, for example using large-scale solar cell to replace high carbon energy.”
And he sees no end to the relentless drive for new inventions given the need to strike a balance between the human desire for consumption and the necessity for sustainability.
One can expect the function of future chips to be even more powerful with the incorporation of artificial intelligence. “It can do a lot more things than you can imagine, and that is going to change human lives,” said Professor Li.
That will not happen until perhaps 10 years from now, he suspects, but he is already witnessing an exciting, challenging time of rapid development in the scientific world.
Fabrication of chips using photolithographic technology in a clean room
Enjoying research and teaching
Explaining his unwavering devotion to science, he says: “I am interested as long as I feel excited and if the research object is practical and may potentially bring a lot of social impacts.”
“I was under different influences at different stages of research. You may have to change the goal or research topic very frequently. At a mature stage, you need to think about the impact, what would really be useful. It is a continual process.”
Besides time consuming, it also requires stamina, in what Professor Li describes as laborious and frustrating work. “As a scientist, we have to provide sufficient arguments to prove maybe 10 possible approaches for the future, then by simulation, argument or experiment we have to identify and narrow down the options to one or two only, before we proceed with a very serious research to find the way forward.”
Use of Raman spectroscopy to probe the quality of materials
To students today, his field of device fabrication may not be as familiar as robotics or AI. Professor Li hopes students taking part in his research will hold the same dream for technological growth, otherwise, they could run out of patience easily. “They need to believe that this will work and bring lots of changes to society once it is successful.”
“I would say it is dirty work in engineering. You need to go to the lab every day and do the experiment. After learning about something, you try to make modifications. It is not sitting in office, typing right in front of a computer. There are lots of hands-on work and trial and error.”
His working life involves more than research, however. He appreciates the support and freedom given by the university to professors in deciding their course content and approach to teaching. Also, enjoying the convenient lifestyle and hiking in Hong Kong - it takes only about 25 minutes to reach the peak from his office on campus - he does take breaks from his scientific pursuits. “I do exercises almost every day and I like to go to the peak to enjoy the sunset. That is the way to keep a clear mind for continuing the research and teaching work. ”
Students joining comprehensive training sessions by WITec expert