Synapse-Like Phototransistor Enables Persistent, Low-Energy Optical Switching

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GOLDEN, Colo., May 11, 2021 — Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) created a phototransistor that allows long-lived persistent photoconductivity (PPC), which is a form of optical memory. The new structure is a heterojunction between perovskite semiconductors and carbon nanotubes. The device could enable optical switching with low energy consumption for potential use in sensors and artificial neural networks and in applications such as self-driving vehicles.

The researchers combined metal-halide perovskite nanocrystals with a network of single-walled carbon nanotubes to make the device. They tested three types of perovskites — formamidinium lead bromide, cesium lead iodide, and cesium lead bromide — and found that each was able to produce PPC.

While PPC typically requires low temperatures and/or high operating voltages and delivers a current spike that lasts for small fractions of a second, the NREL device performed at room temperature and produced an electrical current that flowed for more than an hour after the light shining on the device was switched off.

“What normally would happen is that, after absorbing the light, an electrical current would briefly flow for a short period of time,” said researcher Joseph Luther. “But in this case, the current continued to flow and did not stop for several minutes even when the light was switched off.” The researchers powered the device using low voltages and low light intensities in a demonstration that showed that minimal energy was needed for the device to successfully store memory.

The team’s design could be incorporated into applications for optical memory and neuromorphic computing. Visual perception accounts for most of the input the brain collects, and interconnected neural networks allow the brain to process this input efficiently. The perovskite semiconductor structures could function as artificial synapses and be integrated into image recognition systems to mimic the brain’s ability to process information in an energy-efficient way.

Researcher Jeffrey Blackburn said that NREL originally became interested in the perovskite/carbon nanotube structure for use in photovoltaics, but found that the material combination had several properties that could make it useful in other areas.

“There are many applications where sensor arrays can take in images and apply training and learning algorithms for artificial intelligence and machine-learning-type applications,” he said. “As an example, such systems could potentially improve energy efficiency, performance, and reliability in applications such as self-driving vehicles. In general, these perovskite semiconductors are a really unique functional system with potential benefits for a number of different technologies.

“What we made is only one of the simplest devices you could make from combining these two systems, and we demonstrated a simplistic memory-like operation. To build a neural network requires integrating an array of these junctions into more complex architectures, where more complex memory applications and image processing applications can be emulated.”

The research was supported by the Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy (CHOISE), an Energy Frontier Research Center within the DOE’s Office of Science. The research was published in Science Advances (

Published: May 2021
A phototransistor is a type of semiconductor device that converts light energy into electrical signals. Similar to a regular transistor, it consists of a semiconductor material (such as silicon) with three terminals: collector, emitter, and base. However, in a phototransistor, light incident on the semiconductor creates electron-hole pairs, which influence the conductivity of the semiconductor material. This change in conductivity leads to a corresponding change in the flow of current between...
computer vision
Computer vision enables computers to interpret and make decisions based on visual data, such as images and videos. It involves the development of algorithms, techniques, and systems that enable machines to gain an understanding of the visual world, similar to how humans perceive and interpret visual information. Key aspects and tasks within computer vision include: Image recognition: Identifying and categorizing objects, scenes, or patterns within images. This involves training...
neural network
A computing paradigm that attempts to process information in a manner similar to that of the brain; it differs from artificial intelligence in that it relies not on pre-programming but on the acquisition and evolution of interconnections between nodes. These computational models have shown extensive usage in applications that involve pattern recognition as well as machine learning as the interconnections between nodes continue to compute updated values from previous inputs.
optical memory
1. The direct storage of data as bits in memory using optical systems and properties. The memory makes use of a laser beam that is divided by a beamsplitter and controlled by a modulator and a deflector to transpose bits into a given area of storage in memory. On the other side of the memory plane, a laser and a deflector read the memory, bit by bit, the bits being read by a scanning photodetector. Erasure is accomplished by writing with the beam at a different wavelength. 2. The ability of a...
optical switching
Optical switching refers to the process of controlling the routing or transmission of optical signals within a network using various techniques to selectively switch or redirect optical paths. This is essential in optical communication systems, where data is transmitted as light signals over optical fibers. Optical switching technologies enable efficient, high-speed, and flexible routing of optical signals, enhancing the performance and scalability of optical networks. There are several types...
Optoelectronics is a branch of electronics that focuses on the study and application of devices and systems that use light and its interactions with different materials. The term "optoelectronics" is a combination of "optics" and "electronics," reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of this field. Optoelectronic devices convert electrical signals into optical signals or vice versa, making them crucial in various technologies. Some key components and applications of optoelectronics include: ...
The conductivity increase exhibited by some nonmetallic materials, resulting from the free carriers generated when photon energy is absorbed in electronic transitions. The rate at which free carriers are generated, the mobility of the carriers, and the length of time they persist in conducting states (their lifetime) are some of the factors that determine the amount of conductivity change.
Research & TechnologyeducationNRELphototransistorSensors & Detectorscomputer visionneural networkMaterialsperovskitessemiconductorsoptical memoryoptical switchingself-driving (SD) vehiclescesiumoptoelectronicsmemoryphotoconductivity

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