Science

Scientists Take Graphene to the Next Level


Graphene—the thinnest, toughest material ever produced—conducts electricity 30 times faster than silicon

Photograph by Wei Long/EPA

Graphene—the thinnest, toughest material ever produced—conducts electricity 30 times faster than silicon

Graphene! Graphene! Miracle of miracles! Savior of technology!

At least, that’s been the chatter for the last nine or so years, ever since scientists isolated the single-atom-thick carbon derivative. Graphene is so light, you see—so strong, you understand—that it will bring us the Space Age we were always promised. It will also apparently cure cancer, solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and settle the CBS (CBS)-Time Warner Cable (TWC)throwdown.

And that’s great. But all this is in theory. Show me something real, scientists. I mean, I also was down with cold fusion, Betamax, and Duke Nukem Forever, so I know from disappointment.

Thing is, those scientists seem to have actually reached an important breakthrough with graphene. According to a post today in MIT Technology Review, a group of really smart people appear to have solved a major problem with using graphene in transistors by making it act like a switch. That’s something critical to information processing—and so far, something graphene was not able to do.

Graphene is wickedly conductive, which is important. A graphene transistor was clocked at 427 GHz. Not to get all Doc Brown on it—427 GHZ!—but that’s insane in the membrane (i.e., insane in the brain). An 11-inch MacBook comes with a stock processor running at 1.3 GHz. So a graphene-based processor, in theory, could run 300 times that. Zoom-zoom, know what I’m sayin’?

Until now, graphene had this … issue. You couldn’t turn it off. And if you know anything about transistors, you know that turning on and off is sort of a transistor’s raison goddamn d’etre. So while graphene is super-fresh and all that, if it can’t turn on and off, the question of its efficacy is moot. But aforementioned scientists have been able to come up with an entirely different way of getting graphene to work in a transistor. The result is “a system that dramatically outperforms silicon,” says the article. “[The researchers] say the performance is ‘several orders of magnitude higher than for any reported or even projected scaled circuits.’”

There used to be a lot of hand-wringing that we were running up against the upper limits of Moore’s Law when it came to processing power. If we’re talking about silicon, that may be true. But if this graphene stuff is legit, tomorrow’s processors will make today’s look as they were made by Fisher-Price (MAT).

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and the managing editor of Bloomberg Digital Video. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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