Graphene becomes a heavyweight contender big enough to blanket Scotland and Wales

17-03-2016 |   |  By Paul Whytock

Graphene is incredibly light and weighs a mere 0.77mg per square metre yet is many times stronger than steel despite being only an atom thick.

Everyone in the electronics business has heard of these sheets of honeycombed carbon that offer numerous cutting edge performance possibilities when it comes to the business of moving electrons around.

But did you know analysts are now predicting that in about ten years time nearly 4,000 tonnes of the stuff will be sold each year?

Trying to visualise that amount of such a delicate material is not easy. So with the aid of a calculator I decided to quantify it in a slightly different way and the figure I came up with was that close to 50,000 sq kilometers of graphene would be sold annually; which is enough to totally cover both Scotland and Wales.

That in anyone's book is a lot of graphene and turns this lightweight innovation into a heavyweight market prospect.

So what's driving this enthusiasm about graphene? The major element is the way in which in can revolutionise electronic design but in addition to that is the inevitable price reductions that will accompany economies of scale and also price competition amongst suppliers.

Leading graphene researchers at The University of Manchester have already created the world's smallest transistor using this material and this is significant because the smaller the transistor the better they perform within circuits. Consequently a fundamental design challenge facing the electronics industry is the continued miniaturisation of technology.

It is well documented that electrons pass through graphene extremely rapidly to the extent they appear as massless particles moving in the direction of the electrical filed.

This fundamental characteristic has been closely examined by researchers at MIT and the University of Manchester and they have found that when graphene is placed on top of boron nitride, it creates a super lattice, which is a structure made of aligned, alternating layers of various nanomaterials. This super lattice has demonstrated the ability to move electrons in a perpendicular direction to the electric field without using magnetism.

This has some major implications when it comes to how future transistors could be designed, particularly from an energy efficiency perspective.

As yet the research teams have not constructed a transistor based on this operational characteristic but the super lattice material has already demonstrated high sensitivity to gate voltage that drives transistors.

Developments in graphene also have implications for the way in which Random Access Memories (RAM) perform and this involves a way of improving ferroelectric tunnel junctions.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have improved the junction by combining graphene with ammonia so that it is capable of switching on and off the flow of electrons conclusively. This could result in the improved reliability of RAM devices and their ability to read data without having to rewrite it.

But the many protagonists of graphene need to watch out for another innovative contender that is making some impressive inroads into electronic design Stanene is believed to be a technically robust rival to graphene. This material is made of tin atoms and is alleged to be so conductive that is permits the flow of electricity without any heat loss.

But more on that in a future blog.


By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is Technology Correspondent for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over thirty years. Prior to entering journalism, he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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