The future of graphene

Graphene hints at a world of electronics beyond silicon, unshackled from Moore's Law. What can we expect from this wonder material over the next 10 years?
Written by Lucy Sherriff, Contributor

Since its discovery in 2003, graphene has certainly got everyone very excited about the future.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov's work characterising graphene triggered an explosion of research, and won them the Nobel Prize.

Graphene hints at a world of electronics beyond silicon, unshackled from Moore's Law, and spreads tantalising rumours about room temperature quantum phenomena. So now that we know a bit about its potential, what can we expect from this wonder material over the next 10 years?

Probably one of the people best qualified to speculate is Dr Andrea Ferrari, head of the nanomaterials and spectroscopy group at Cambridge University. He is in charge of putting together a bid for a billion euros of EU funding for a materials science research programme to rival Cern, or the European Space Agency.

Ferrari began our conversation with a note of caution. Although graphene promises much for the electronics industry, practical application is still a good way off, despite recent breakthroughs from IBM. Even so, the range of applications for the material is astonishing.

Before you have a graphene CPU, you will have a graphene touchscreen, Ferrari said.

"Graphene has a unique combination of optical, electrical and mechanical properties. It is a transparent conductor, but not brittle. Nothing else can do this. So this is where graphene is probably closest to application," he said. Samsung and Texas Instruments are two firms he highlights as being particularly far along the road to commercial production.

Play to your strengths

As we discovered earlier, graphene has no band gap. Although a small gap can be induced relatively easily, this is still not anywhere near enough for transistors as logic switches.

Dr Andrea Ferrari

Dr Andrea Ferrari of Cambridge University is putting together a bid for EU funding for a materials science research programme. Photo credit: Cambridge University

"We are looking very far ahead for that," Ferrari told ZDNet UK. "Maybe 10 to 20 years for graphene to replace silicon in these transistors." He said that currently, the kind of manipulation needed to induce a workable band gap in graphene causes its other properties to become less remarkable. "It is silly to have such an exceptional material and try to force it to be something else, when you should be focusing on exploiting what it can do," he added.

For example, try spin transport. Ferrari is keen to see more research in this area. Graphene has a long spin diffusion length, even at room temperature, which makes it an interesting candidate for spintronics. "Again, this doesn't need a band gap, so we are not making graphene behave like something else," he said.

Ferrari is also keen to see funding go to develop graphene as a sensor. "We can make it flat and large, and it is planar so at least one and possibly two faces can be exposed to the environment. It can act as a strain sensor — when you pull on it, its electrical and optical properties change," he said. Potentially, this could be incorporated into a structure; we could have self-monitoring aeroplane wings that keep the pilot informed of their strain state, for example.

Graphene potential

Graphene also has enormous potential in DNA sequencing. Imagine a sheet of graphene with a small gap, big enough to allow a strand of DNA to pass through, like thread through cloth. As the DNA passes through the sheet, the electrical properties of graphene change on exposure to each base pair. Because it is 2D, it can "read" one base at a time, making it much more accurate than anything used today.

Its transparency and lack of band gap also makes it ideal for use in solar cells. "You can replace the interface and the inside to improve the electrons generated by incident light. The linear dispersion of electrons means graphene can absorb light from all over the solar spectrum, where silicon is confined to certain frequencies," Ferrari noted.

Finally, graphene has a role to play as a component, and a constituent. "All the chemical derivatives of graphene are useful," Ferrari adds. "Fluorographene, graphene oxide, hydrogenated graphene... you can dissolve graphene and [the] solutions have possible application in printable electronics. What you can put down now is already 10 times better than the state of the art."

Let us not forget that graphene also has applications outside the main IT focus of Ferrari's project. It is being used right now as an additive to drilling fluids by the oil industry.

So the question is not so much what will graphene affect, as what won't it affect. We suspect that list is much shorter.

Read more of ZDNet UK's special coverage of Graphene: Future IT.
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