Thinking Tech

Graphene: IBM's new breakthrough for future of electronics

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The savior of electronics might be at the tip of your pencil. Graphene is graphite (or carbon) arranged in one-atom thick honeycomb-structured shee...

The savior of electronics might be at the tip of your pencil. Graphene is graphite (or carbon) arranged in one-atom thick honeycomb-structured sheets. Imagine incredibly thin, strong and transparent chicken wire. Stacking three million sheets of graphene would reach a height of just 1 mm. And according to engineering professor James Hone, Columbia University, who was recently quoted in a BBC article, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.” Research nerds have been gleefully excited about graphene since the 1970s.

Yesterday I.B.M. published a paper in the journal Science announcing the first design of high-speed integrated circuits made out of graphene. This leap follows I.B.M.’s success in building a graphene-based transistor. Developing a broadband radio-frequency circuit, however, has enormous potential for the future of our smart phones, televisions, and all sorts of high-bandwidth communications.

The days of the microchip are numbered. Since the sixties companies like Intel have been doubling the number of transistors on a chip. This trend, called Moore’s Law, is why we can afford to have the power of a 1965 supercomputer in our pocket-sized smart phone. But there is a limit to the number of transistors we can cram on a chip. Semiconductor experts say that by 2020 we will need to come up with a replacement.

Graphene is a super keen conductor of electricity. Some say better than most semiconductors. Particles, including electrons, have mass, that is why you need to boost them with energy to get them to move. Think of kicking a soccer ball. The more boost, the faster they move. The amazing thing about graphene is that its electrons can lose their mass, and so they move freely and constantly, like a photon of light. Researchers have confirmed that graphene’s massless electrons can move at four-hundredths the speed of light. It’s this magical quality, and the fact that its relatively cheap and flexible, that increases the hype for electronics.

But not so fast. Silicon and other semiconductors have an ability to turn on/off which is what controls the information spinning through them. This is why binary computer language (1s and 0s) makes sense. Nanotubes also have this ability, but sadly graphene does not.

But according to the New York Times this has not stifled industry excitement. Europe and South Korea have invested $1.5 billion in research to use graphene as the next big thing in building displays.

Indeed many researchers speak about the material as having as many applications as plastic. Everything from flexible touch screens to digital clothing is being researched. Imagine rolling up your iPad and tucking it into your coat pocket.

Graphene may show potential to be exponentially faster than silicon, but the idea of replacing silicon is so far off the horizon that I.B.M. researchers are reluctant to even assess the possibility.

Still, this recent breakthrough, which is funded by the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA,) could be used in top secret communications between airborne pilots. The circuit converts low-frequency audio signals to high-frequency signals which makes wireless communication possible.

(via The New York Times and Science)

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure