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Here's a multi-billion dollar question: Can graphene really replace silicon?

Here's a multi-billion dollar question: Can graphene really replace silicon?

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A team of scientists developed a simple way to write nanocircuits — a discovery that could disrupt the electronics industry.

Silicon move over. Graphene is strong, extremely conductive, flexible, and transparent — and is the preferred alternative. Even though the magical properties of graphene have been touted since it was discovered in 2004, scientists have struggled to take their creations out of the lab and into our hands.

A group of scientists have figured out how to make an insulating material into a conducting wire in a pretty simple way. So it's not really far-fetched to think graphene, single-atom thick sheets of carbon, could one day replace silicon as the material of choice.

There are a myriad of ways to make graphene. Some researchers cut graphene into thin ribbons before inserting them into electronics. And others soak graphite with special solutions to manipulate its properties. No one was really sure of a way to produce the material for mass consumption.

Georgia Institute of Technology and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientists know how — by writing circuits directly onto graphene. They have created a one-step process that can turn an insulating material into a conducting one.

They looked at two types of graphene (silicon carbide and graphite powder) and found that their technique worked for both.

Technology Review gave the step-by-step process:

  • use a graphene oxide sheet (not conductive)
  • etch an insulating graphene oxide surface with a heated atomic force microscope tip
  • the tip gets ride of oxygen atoms
  • the result? "almost-pure graphene" (10,000 times more conductive than the starting product)

This occurred at speeds of up to 0.1 millimeters per second and the lines were etched narrowly at 12 nanometers across. When the temperature increased, the writing speed did too. The technique is scalable and is totally reproducible. Imagine if thousands of the AFM tips could write nanocircuits.

In a statement, William P. King, associate professor in the Mechanical Science and Engineering department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said:

“First, is that the entire process happens in one step. You go from insulating graphene oxide to a functional electronic material by simply applying a nano-heater.  Second, we think that any type of graphene will behave this way. Third, the writing is an extremely fast technique. These nanostructures can be synthesized at such a high rate that the approach could be very useful for engineers who want to make nanocircuits.”

Cha-ching! Seriously, money does talk:

These benefits will help expand the market for graphene from $196,000 last year to $59 million in 2015 with potential to impact $53 billion of intermediate products and help the material make a splash in applications from automobiles to displays, according to a new report from Lux Research.

Just think about the possibilities beyond flexible electronics.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure