Iron in the kinks, say boffins: Wrinkly graphene could one day make computer chips 'smaller and faster'

All these use cases, not much action

Wrinkles and bubbles in wonder substance graphene are showing electronic properties researchers say could one day help solve limits on current microprocessor designs.

A team at the UK's University of Sussex, along with international collaborators, have shown that creating kinks in the structure of graphene can make nanomaterial behave like a transistor.

Using graphene less than a nanometre in thickness, the researchers showed that kinks about 2nm across create the same effect on electrical conductivity as a simple bipolar transistor. The height of each kink is between 4nm and 8nm, a variable that helps engineers tune the transistor, Manoj Tripathi, research fellow in nanostructured materials at the University of Sussex told The Register.

A typical transistor today might be about 14nm across.

But it is the ability to build out a circuit in three dimensions that particularly interests the researchers. Tripathi used the analogy of getting a larger population into the same area by constructing a high-rise building. "Wrinkles are basically multi-storey buildings of flat or semiconducting materials, so this is one way we are solving the problem of confinement," he said.

Although graphene is not technically a semiconductor, the folding of the two-dimensional surface allows it to behave like one, Tripathi said.


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The other way in which the researchers manipulated graphene was by using a laser to evaporate liquid water molecules between the substrate and the material, creating "nanobubbles". These alter the structural properties of the material to help build a circuit, according to the study published in American Chemical Society Nano.

The researchers have so far tested the electronic and mechanical properties of these manipulation techniques and hope to be able to demonstrate a working circuit in not much more than a year.

Tripathi said the technique could help overcome some of the physical lower limits on microprocessor design, such as quantum tunnelling, where electron waveforms have a nasty habit of leaping through barriers.

Sussex University professor Alan Dalton, who oversaw the research, said: "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."

But the advantages of the approach not only lie in the benefits to processor design and speed.

Microprocessor manufacturing requires the use of some quite nasty substances, including arsenic. Because the graphene origami techniques don't require additive materials, and because this process works at room temperature, rather than requiring high temperatures, the environmental impact could be lower than current semiconductor production methods, Tripathi said.

The study, which involved contributions from researchers from Greece, the US and other UK universities, is an example of "straintronics". The approach uses strain-induced physical effects in solids in a bid to develop information, sensor, and energy-saving technologies. ®

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