Question: When are two dimensions better than three?
Answer: When you’re talking about graphene.
Graphene, one of the promising new nano-technology materials, is a single-atom-thick layer of carbon-based material that looks like chicken wire under the gaze of a scanning tunneling microscope. As with its nano cousins, scientists are working aggressively to come up with practical and powerful uses for the material. Today, in an article in Science magazine, IBM researchers revealed a breakthrough involving graphene that promises to help usher in a new generation of wireless devices–everything from sensors coupled with tiny wireless transmitters to paper-thin IPad-like screens that you’ll be able to roll up and put in your pocket. “This is the first step in reaching and exploring a wide array of uses for this material,” says IBM scientist Yu-ming Lin, the lead researcher on the project.
The researchers, who work at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., have produced the first integrated circuit fabricated from semiconductor wafer-size graphene. They demonstrated its effectiveness using one of the core functions in wireless telecommunications–converting low-frequency audio signals into high-frequency signals capable of being transmitted through the air.
There’s some pretty cool science at work here. Graphene is an ultra-thin slice of graphite or charcoal. Some scientists have produced it by shaving it off of pieces of graphite, but the IBMers make theirs by growing it on the surface of a silicon carbide wafer. They use heat to evaporate the silicon on the surface through a process that leaves carbon atoms on the surface in a lattice pattern.
Graphene is an excellent material for use in semiconductors because electrons can move through it at a much higher speed than they can through other semiconductor materials, such as silicon and silicon germanium. It’s also thin, flexible and transparent–all great characteristics in the wireless communications business.
In the short term, say, five years, using graphene in integrated circuits will help make electronic gizmos smaller and cheaper and consume less energy. We’re talking about everything from cell phones to RFID-based devices. Longer term, 10 years and beyond, is when the real magic happens. Lin foresees all sorts of flexible displays with their electronics built into them. Low-cost and low-power sensors that both monitor data and transmit it will be essentially invisible. Also, there’s great potential in medical imaging devices. Instead of relying so much on X-rays, doctors may be able to use high-frequency waves to peer inside the human body.
Like other scientific breakthroughs, the timing is not easily predicted. But the promise of graphene circuitry is huge.
For the more technology literate among you, here’s an explanatory image supplied by IBM Research: