For years, scientists have struggled to build graphene-based electronics that could do the same thing as silicon superconductor chips. A new breakthrough from an international team of scientists might just change all that. These geniuses just invented a new form of graphene that's 10 times more conductive.
The trick to this new form of graphene is that it allows electrons to act like photons. The impressive material is simply nanoribbons of epitaxial graphene — that's the honeycomb arrangement of carbon atoms you're used to seeing to illustrate graphene — that's manufactured using a relatively simple process. The scientists grew the nanoribbons on silicone carbide wafers in which they had etched circuit patterns using standard microelectronics techniques. The silicone was then heated to about 1000C, melting the silicone off and leaving these novel graphene nanoribbons with perfectly smooth edges. The graphene forms spontaneously on the etched edges of the silicon.
It's the smoothness that makes these nanoribbons so useful. This allows the electrons to move along the graphene with virtually no resistance. "These electrons are really behaving more like light," said Walt de Heer, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who worked on the study. "It is like light going through an optical fibre. Because of the way the fibre is made, the light transmits without scattering." This enables scientists to create basic switches that interrupt the flow of electrons. In the past, graphene-based electronics haven't been possible because graphene has no electronic band gap, the property that controls traditional transistors.
De Heer says this breakthrough "should enable a new way of doing electronics." The way that the electrons travel with such ease is akin to the behaviour of semiconductors and could really open the doors to possibilities physicists haven't even thought of. Now, the scientists' job is to better understand how these graphene nanoribbons work, and then they can get started building. They've already got a circuit to work with! [Kurzweil]