A team of researchers from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the discovery that cubic boron arsenide has better properties than silicon for making microchips, calling it “the best semiconductor material ever found“. It is noteworthy that the team that made the discovery also included a scientist of Chinese origin, previously suspected of spying for China.
In July, scientists from MIT, the University of Houston and other academic institutions proved that cubic boron arsenide is a better conductor of both heat and electricity than silicon, which is commonly used in semiconductor manufacturing. According to the study, cubic boron arsenide is a ten times more efficient conductor of heat than silicon. It is also the best conductor of both electrons and electron holes – this is particularly important for the properties of a semiconductor. Materials like boron arsenide, if found in commercial applications, could change the “rules of the game” in industry.
The investigative team included Gang Chen, a former head of MIT’s engineering department, who had been under investigation for a year on suspicion of espionage, after which the US Department of Justice dropped the charges for lack of evidence. According to Fortune, during the Trump era, the Justice Department’s China Initiative launched an investigation into dozens of Chinese scientists and Sino-American scientists, accusing them of ties to Chinese authorities to transfer cutting-edge technology to Beijing.
It is possible that it will be decades before boron arsenide-based chips are commercially available – if the technology is even recognized as suitable for use. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the material can be used to produce better, faster and more compact chips than today – according to Fotrune, the USA could lose these results through pressure on specialists like Chen.
Authorities are known to have arrested Chinese-born Chen (already naturalized in the US in 2000) in January 2021. He was specifically accused of hiding ties to Chinese authorities in applications for a US Department of Energy grant. The public prosecutor emphasized that it was about loyalty to China.
The scientific community, including scientists from MIT, criticized the arrest and wrote an open letter partially pointing it out “You’re All Gan Chen”. Under President Joe Biden, the Justice Department dropped all charges after the Energy Department said no one had asked Gan Chen for information about ties to China. A month after the conclusion of the Chen case, the Justice Department also ended the China Initiative.
Scholars have stressed that such a “witch hunt” discourages researchers, especially from China, from moving to the United States, which is why the United States cannot harness its intellectual potential. According to a study, the US would need to increase its semiconductor manufacturing workforce by 50% to shift the core of chip manufacturing from Asia to North America. At the same time, talent must be recruited from abroad, including from China.