commentary Carbon. Is there nothing it can't do? As well as being the fundamental element behind life, the premium component in energy storage and the top contender for executioner of the human race, it's now beginning to fill in the forms for consideration as inheritor to silicon's electronic crown.
We've reported on the extremely weird behaviour of graphene before: it seems that when you put just a few sheets of planar carbon together, electrons behave almost as if they're a different kind of particle operating under different physical laws. (They're not, of course, but one of the defining features of the common electron is it's far easier to say what it's not, than what it is.)
Most recently, ZDNet.com.au sister site ZDNet.co.uk reported on an atomic-scale transistor made out of graphene, around one by ten atoms thick. Which is perfect for taking over from silicon when Moore's Law demands, but with the small proviso that you can't then get much smaller.
(Unless you start thinking about fractional-charge electronic effects — sample paragraph: "A pair of new studies documents the existence of "quasiparticles" with one quarter the electric charge of a single electron-odd, considering that electrons can not actually be split into smaller particles. More than a mere curiosity, the demonstration may hold the key to a powerful form of quantum computing in which the quasiparticles' quantum states could be braided together." See what I mean about electrons?).
Back in reality-land, though, researchers at Cornell have proposed popping buckyballs — think graphene sheets formed into football-like spheres — into flash memory structures. This is much easier to understand and do, as solid-state engineers are very good at slipping stuff into silicon: the key advantage isn't anything to do with quasi-particles or ballistic conduction, but creating a much more efficient one-way path for electrons.
Flash works by bumping up the energy in electrons enough so they can cross a non-conductive barrier, then making sure they then don't have enough energy to come back. The trouble is, this is an energetic process which is power-hungry, inefficient and complex. The buckyballs create conditions where far less energy is needed to pop the electrons across the barrier one way, without giving them an easy return path back.
Although the researchers are suitably low-key about predicting when actual devices might appear, giving generous nods to alternative technologies, this has the feeling of something with a good chance of happening and being significant. It's a modification of a well-established and widely-used technique, so if it works it should be easy to adopt, and it confers a real benefit.
It remains true that the could-ratio (how many times the word 'could' occurs in proportion to the total number of sentences) is still stubbornly high in graphene and carbon electronics press releases. Nevertheless, the amount of real new science being reported here continues to grow: this area still stands out as the best chance we've got to keep Moore's Law going longer than the man himself.