Artist impression of a computer chip. Image: Alexander Klepnev
Artist's impression of a computer chip. Image: Alexander Klepnev

Graphene. The wonder kid of the materials world. At just one atom thick, this special configuration of carbon burst onto the scene in 2004 after it was first isolated and experimented on by a team at the University of Manchester. For this, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded just six years later – a sign of the truly remarkable and significant physics that this super 2D material exhibits. From interesting magnetic and quantum properties to excellent electrical conductivity, stronger than steel and with high resistance to heat damage, graphene is a physics playground. But it also has huge potential for real-world applications in electronics to make them faster and much more energy efficient, playing a key part in the green technology revolution.

Computer electronics are a prime target area for boosting efficiency. The heat you feel coming from a laptop or phone working hard is electrons losing energy as they collide with atoms in the silicon semiconductors that make up the computer chips. Semiconductors make computers work – they enable the flow of electricity to be switched on or off so that information can be stored or so that logic circuits can function. The semiconductor industry currently relies on silicon as the base material, due to its high performance and relative ease of mass manufacture. However, collision-free flow of electrons in a thin, durable material would be the most energy efficient option – which is where graphene comes in.

A global race to fabricate a semiconductor from graphene began after its discovery and we now have a winner. The world’s first functional graphene semiconductor has been developed by a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Published in Nature, this breakthrough research involved growing graphene on a bed of silicon carbide, followed by chemical processing to enhance the structure until the desired result was achieved. This approach is easily scalable, which means that the dawn of the graphene computer age may be within our sights, along with a paradigm shift for our digital world.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.