A Good Form Of Carbon

It's been a while since I covered anything technical, so I figured it was time to fix that.

So what's the topic this time around? Carbon.

No, not the carbon the AGW crowd has been obsessing about, but graphene, a form of carbon that has very unusual properties and may soon replace silicon in electronics and copper in wiring. And graphene may only be the beginning.

For the past decade, graphene has been the undisputed champion of the material world. This single atom thick layer of carbon is the thinnest known material and the strongest ever measured; it is also a much better conductor of electricity than copper, able to sustain a current density six orders of magnitude higher.

A number of research labs have already managed make transistors using graphene, and their performance has greatly exceeded that of those made from other semiconductors like silicon, silicon-germanium, gallium arsenide, and gallium nitride. Being able to employ graphene in microprocessors, other digital IC's, analog IC's, and RF (radio) devices will increase the speed while at the same time lower the power they use to perform the same functions as those same devices using the other semiconductors.

That's just the beginning.

The problem with being a champion, of course, is that you’re always being challenged by upstarts looking to usurp your position, and this is beginning to happen with graphene. Like graphene, these upstarts are two-dimensional crystals consisting of a thin layer of atoms, and while they possess many of the same properties as graphene they also boast a couple of new ones. Although they haven’t yet succeeded in pushing graphene off its perch, they’ve certainly managed to muscle their way on there as well.

Graphene used in conjunction with these other materials may give us devices that go beyond standard electronics, particularly in digital electronics. One such possibility is what is called spintronics, which uses the spin of electrons to represent the 1's and 0's of digital circuits rather than their electric charge as is done now. It also means they'll be able to pack even more circuits into microprocessors that will run cooler, faster, and use much less power than they do now.

One other possible application: room temperature superconductors. That's when the fun really begins!