Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Graphene, the new silicon?

The Guardian reports: [edited]

Somehow it seems appropriate that the government might be basing some of its hopes for the economy's recovery on a substance that is one atom thick. The substance in question – graphene – 200 times as strong as steel, seems to some designed to carry the weight of almost anything – but George Osborne's Plan A? That would indeed make it a miracle material.

Nevertheless the chancellor made a detour from the Tory conference in Blackpool in September to visit Manchester University, graphene's spiritual home, and to announce a £50m investment. Graphene is claimed by some as an innovation that will prove as revolutionary as the silicon chip, or even plastics, both of which it may supersede.

Sitting in his lab at the university, Konstantin Novoselov one half of the 2010 physics Nobel prize-winning team that "discovered" graphene, runs through the superlatives of his material – uniquely strong and flexible and the best conductor of electricity yet found.

Graphene may be formed of unique bonds, but the synergy between research and application, between university and industry is still nowhere near as tight as it might be. I imagine, universities and corporations are throwing money at graphene research in other parts of the world?

"Yes," Novoselov says, "but money is not the only thing. Before the £50m we had no more than any other lab, but we still kept at the front of this. It's more time than money." If you think that you can make a new kind of transistor and put it into your computer straight away, he suggests, then you are wrong. How to integrate this into existing technology let alone allow it to begin to shape new technology will take years if not decades. He points to the example of silicon. "The first transistor was maybe 1947, silicon appeared six or seven years later and then it was another 10 or 20 years before integrated circuits." 2D technology may take even longer to become properly commercial, but he has no doubt that it will.

"The real excitement at the moment is the way we can now layer graphene with different 2D materials," he says, "with each layer having different properties." The stacking means that in theory it will be possible to design materials with the properties to meet any needs. "You tell me 'I want blue and highly conductive and bendy' and we can make it."

To a certain degree, he suggests, the only limits to graphene may be those of imagination. "We still tend to think of how this material might be used in the form of current objects. We can imagine, say, a 2D layered photodetective material, with a solar cell and transistor combined which would allow you to make a very thin plastic touchscreen that generated its own power."

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