Graphene sheaths could boost processor signal speeds by 30 per cent

Stanford boffins find yet another use for super-material

Scientists at Stanford have found a new use for graphene that will significantly increase the speed of standard computer processors.

Most chips use copper interconnects to route signals around their semiconductor circuits, and these are typically insulated with a coating of tantalum nitride. The Stanford team instead used an atom-thick layer of graphene to sheath the copper, and found that could boost the data transfer speeds of the wires: the graphene-coated interconnects, depending on their length, can reliably transfer data between four and 17 per cent faster than the equivalent interconnects in today's processor designs, apparently.

"Researchers have made tremendous advances on all of the other components in chips but recently, there hasn't been much progress on improving the performance of the wires," said Stanford electrical engineer Philip Wong.

"Graphene has been promised to benefit the electronics industry for a long time, and using it as a copper barrier is perhaps the first realization of this promise."

The advantages of using graphene in this way are twofold. Firstly, from an engineering standpoint, graphene is a much more efficient material, taking up a ninth of the space of tantalum nitride coatings.

But the biggest advantage is that the graphene actually acts both as an insulator, but also a conductor. The team found that electrons would travel through the graphene as well as through the copper wire, and it was there that the speed benefits really kicked in.

The team, which will present its findings at the Symposia of VLSI Technology and Circuits in Kyoto, Japan, this week, reported that interconnect speeds could be boosted by up to 30 per cent, if the graphene tech is shrunk down to next-generation process sizes.

The research is interesting, but needs more work before going into production. The team are now looking into how to grow the graphene directly onto copper wires, which would lower production costs drastically. ®

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