Is Graphene the Silicon of the Future?

Photo courtesy of Flickr: University of Exeter

Everywhere you look, we are surrounded by a vast array of chips - integrated chips, circuit chips, computer chips... even this big bag of potato chips next to my keyboard. While most of the world is familiar with silicon chips and the role they play in the tech world, there is an emerging technology that could quickly become this generation's version of silicon, and its name is graphene. Haven't heard of it? You soon will, as chip-builders like Intel and IBM hope to use it to take the world into the next era of high-speed computing.

To understand where chip technology is heading, we really have to know where it began. While that topic could (and has) easily fill the pages of an entire book, the Nobel Prize website has a fascinating article on the history of the integrated circuit that delves back to the beginning of transistors and vacuum tubes through the invention of silicon computer chips - it even includes a great step-by-step walkthrough of how chips and microprocessors are made.

Graphene vs. Silicon

While graphene may sound new, scientists have known about it since the 1800s. But only recently, within the past decade or so, have they been able to really conduct any experiments or begin working with the mysterious substance.

But what, exactly, is graphene, and why is its use in modern chip technology possibly the wave of the future? In layman's terms, graphene is a crystal structure made up of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms. The material is super-thin - so thin, in fact, that it has negligible height, only length and width. This makes graphene a two-dimensional substance for all intents and purposes. Without getting too science-geek on you, Georgia Tech's Epitaxial Graphene Lab page has a great piece explaining graphene in laymen's terms.

There are several reasons why graphene promises to be so important to the microchip industry. For starters, graphene chips will be cheaper to manufacture than silicon. At the same time, graphene chips will be much faster than silicon-based chips. In fact, IBM Research recently built a graphene chip that is 10,000 times faster than today's computer chips. This increase in speed is achieved thanks in part to the fact that graphene chips are able to work with light versus electricity, making information relay much, much faster.

IBM Research's work with graphene chips is considered a great breakthrough with regard to the process chip-makers use to incorporate graphene. In the past, applying graphene to a circuit board was a delicate process, often damaging components when set in place. Basically, the change in process involves applying the substance at the end instead of the beginning. That must have been a real "duh" moment for whoever figured it out!

For more on this exciting new work, check out Extreme Tech's article on IBM's graphene chip, and while you are at it, tech-minded individuals may want to read more about graphene circuit fabrication, a very detailed look at graphene's role in the chip world.

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