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With each new generation of microchips, transistors are being placed closer and
closer together. This can only go on so long before theres no more room to improve,
or something revolutionary has to come along to change everything. One of the
materials that might be the basis of that revolution is none other than graphene.
Researchers at the University of California at er!eley are hot on the trail of a form
of so"called nanoribbon graphene that could increase the density of transistors on a
computer chip by as much as #$,$$$ times.
%raphene has already earned its discoverers a &obel 'ri(e, but its true promise is
only beginning to be reali(ed. %raphene is a sheet of carbon only one layer of atoms
thic!. This two"dimensional physical configuration gives it some incredible properties
li!e e)treme electrical conductivity at room temperature. Researchers have been
wor!ing on producing high *uality sheets of the material, but nanoribbons as! more
of science than it can currently deliver.
Wor! on nanoribbons over the past decade has revolved around using lasers to
carefully sculpt ribbons #$ or +$ atoms wide from larger sheets of graphene. On the
scale of billionths of an inch, that probably sounds incredibly precise. ,owever, even
a few carbon atoms can - one way or the other . completely alter the properties of
the ribbon, preventing it from wor!ing as a semiconductor at room temperature.
er!eley chemist /eli) /ischer thin!s he might have the solution. Rather than carve
ribbons out of larger sheets li!e some sort of demented microscopic tailor, /ischer is
creating the nanoribbons fully formed using a chemical process. asically, hes
wor!ing on a new way to produce graphene that happens to already be in the right
configuration for nanoribbons.
/ischer begins by synthesi(ing rings of
carbon atoms similar in structure to ben(ene. ,eating these molecules under the
right conditions encourages them to bind together in a long chain. 0 second heating
step strips away most of the hydrogen atoms, freeing up the carbon to form bonds in
a honeycomb"li!e structure - graphene. This process allows /ischer and his
colleagues to control where each atom of carbon goes in the final nanoribbon.
On the scale /ischer is ma!ing them, graphene nanoribbons could be capable of
transporting electrons thousands of times faster than a traditional metallic conductor.
Transistors based on nanoribbons could also be pac!ed very close together - a
human hair is #$,$$$ times wider than /ischers nanoribbons. Thus, a chip based on
graphene nanoribbons could have a huge number of very fast transistors that
dissipate heat more efficiently than metal.