Tiny graphene microchips could make your phones and laptops thousands of times faster, say scientists

Researchers unlocked the electronic properties of graphene by folding the material like origami paper.

Scientific showing a piece of graphene with hexagonal molecule.

Graphene, and its nano-scale dimensions, could be leveraged to design the smallest microchips yet.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Graphene strips folded in similar fashion to origami paper could be used to build microchips that are up to 100 times smaller than conventional chips, found physicists – and packing phones and laptops with those tiny chips could significantly boost the performance of our devices.

New research from the University of Sussex in the UK shows that changing the structure of nanomaterials like graphene can unlock electronic properties and effectively enable the material to act like a transistor.  

The scientists deliberately created kinks in a layer of graphene and found that the material could, as a result, be made to behave like an electronic component. Graphene, and its nano-scale dimensions, could therefore be leveraged to design the smallest microchips yet, which will be useful to build faster phones and laptops. 

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Alan Dalton, professor at the school of mathematical and physics sciences at the University of Sussex, said: "We're mechanically creating kinks in a layer of graphene. It's a bit like nano-origami.  

"This kind of technology – 'straintronics' using nanomaterials as opposed to electronics – allows space for more chips inside any device. Everything we want to do with computers – to speed them up – can be done by crinkling graphene like this." 

Discovered in 2004, graphene is an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, which, due to its nano-sized width, is effectively a 2D material. Graphene is best known for its exceptional strength, but also for the material's conductivity properties, which has already generated much interest in the electronics industry including from Samsung Electronics. 

The field of straintronics has already shown that deforming the structure of 2D nanomaterials like graphene, but also molybdenum disulfide, can unlock key electronic properties, but the exact impact of different "folds" remains poorly understood, argued the researchers.  

Yet the behavior of those materials offers huge potential for high-performance devices: for example, changing the structure of a strip of 2D material can change its doping properties, which correspond to electron density, and effectively convert the material into a superconductor.  

The researchers carried an in-depth study of the impact of structural changes on properties, such as doping in strips of graphene and of molybdenum disulfide. From kinks and wrinkles to pit-holes, they observed how the materials could be twisted and turned to eventually be used to design smaller electronic components.  

Manoj Tripathi, research fellow in nano-structured materials at the University of Sussex, who led the research, said: "We've shown we can create structures from graphene and other 2D materials simply by adding deliberate kinks into the structure. By making this sort of corrugation we can create a smart electronic component, like a transistor, or a logic gate." 

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The findings are likely to resonate in an industry pressed to conform to Moore's law, which holds that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, in response for growing demand for faster computing services. The problem is, engineers are struggling to find ways to fit much more processing power into tiny chips, creating a big problem for the traditional semiconducting industry. 

A tiny graphene-based transistor could significantly help overcome these hurdles. "Using these nanomaterials will make our computer chips smaller and faster. It is absolutely critical that this happens as computer manufacturers are now at the limit of what they can do with traditional semiconducting technology. Ultimately, this will make our computers and phones thousands of times faster in the future," said Dalton. 

Since it was discovered over 15 years ago, graphene has struggled to find as many applications as was initially hoped for, and the material has often been presented as a victim of its own hype. But then, it took over a century for the first silicon chip to be created after the material was discovered in 1824. Dalton and Tripathi's research, in that light, seems to be another step towards finding a potentially game-changing use for graphene.