By now, since first being patented in 2006, you may have heard of a remarkable new material called graphene. Stronger and lighter than any other manmade material and 200 times more conductive than copper, graphene is seemingly set to turn the electronics world on its head. Or is it? You see graphene, while bearing some amazing properties has proven very hard for engineers and scientists to work with.
What is graphene?
Graphene, is a crystalline formation of carbon atoms in a distinct hexagonal arrangement. Due to this atomic arrangement at the microscopic level, graphene has distinct zero-gap semiconductor properties that allow for the flow of electrons much easier than other conductor materials. The other property that makes graphene so interesting to researchers is its strength. Graphene is strong for the same reason that diamonds are so strong. The electrical interaction that bonds atoms together is especially strong in carbon atoms, which comprise both materials.
Why are researchers so interested in graphene?
In electronics the main interest is in improving semiconductor technology. Currently our electronics utilize silicon based transistor technology. One of the main problems we face today is that there seems to be a limit to how small we can make logic gates at the microscopic level and still have them be able to be able to withstand the electrical currents required to make them work. Researchers have found that Graphene based transistor gates can operate with a lot less energy therefore operate at a much higher clock speed without harming the chip. This means potentially smaller and more stable computing devices than ever before opening a new world of electronics innovation.
Why isn’t graphene based electronics everywhere now?
Well the short answer is graphene is very hard for manufacturers to use. While very strong in its two-dimensional arrangement, it is very hard to form into the shapes needed to produce new devices. In addition, the chemical and mechanical processes such as wafer bonding used in silicon based semiconductor manufacture vary greatly from the processes needed to make graphene transistors. Thus the machines and infrastructure needed to mass produce simply do not exist. But this has not stopped the scientific community from developing new ideas for this amazing material and the next leap forward in electronics could be just around the corner.