Cutting Silicon With a Proton Accelerator Instead of a Saw

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Those proton accelerators aren't just good for particle physics anymore.

All of the computer technology everywhere is built on chips. These chips are made of silicon that has been manufactured into the purest material on earth. And then that silicon is cut into wafers with a saw. A really nice saw, but a saw. 


The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal in conversation with industry entrepreneurs shaping our future. See full coverage
If that seems like an odd way of creating the basic component of the most advanced technology on Earth, Twin Creeks Technologies Siva Sivaram would agree with you. His company has created a machine -- a proton accelerator, like the ones used in particle physics -- that sends protons plowing into a sheet of silicon. They embed themselves in a layer at a depth that varies with the energy you flow through the machine. When the material is heated, an slice of silicon detaches starting at the layer of protons that were delivered. 

Sivaram's pitch is that they've managed to get these machines tuned just right so that they can create ultrathin silicon wafers that deliver the same or better performance as their fatter competitors. And that's very significant for solar cells because materials costs are a very large slice of their overall cost. 
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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