Graphene: making computing faster, cheaper and greener
Graphene is already regarded as a ‘wonder material’ for its remarkable strength and electrical conductivity — properties that have sent researchers racing to use it in applications from tennis rackets, flexible smart phones you can fold up and wrap around your wrist, and to destroying cancer. The graphene revolution is, indeed, in full swing. Researchers from around the world are working simultaneously on a seemingly infinite number of major applications utilizing the world’s only two-dimensional material. According to many graphene scientists and experts, in a matter of time, graphene will change all of our lives.
Hot-off-the-press research indicates that graphene can make computing faster and more environmentally friendly (both of those benefits are impressive). Scientists are working on developing a new kind of computer chip. Currently most chips require electricity to operate, but a new study revealed the integration of graphene in photodetectors can convert optical signals to electrical signals in integrated optoelectronic computer chips. In other words, graphene would allow computer chips to run on light instead of electricity.
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Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia University and IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center have demonstrated that graphene is ideally suited to turn light in to electrical current. There are many materials that can transform light into electrical signals, but graphene allows for a particularly fast conversion. The research showed that with graphene, incoming photons (light) knock some electrons out, which are then converted into electrical energy. Using light rather than electricity to move data both within and between computer chips could drastically reduce their power consumption and heat production, problems that loom ever larger as chips’ computational capacity increases.
Optoelectronic devices built from graphene could be much simpler in design than those made from other materials. If a method for efficiently depositing layers of graphene can be found, it could ultimately lead to optoelectronic chips that are simpler and cheaper to manufacture.
“Another advantage, besides the possibility of making device fabrication simpler, is that the high mobility and ultrahigh carrier-saturation velocity of electrons in graphene makes for very fast detectors and modulators,” says Dirk Englund, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, who led the new research.
Graphene is also responsive to a wider range of light frequencies than the materials typically used in photodetectors, so graphene-based optoelectronic chips could conceivably use a broader-band optical signal, enabling them to move data more efficiently. “A two-micron photon just flies straight through a germanium photodetector,” Englund says, “but graphene is absorbed and leads to a measurable current.”
Wherever large amounts of data are to be transmitted in a short period of time, graphene will potentially be the material of choice in future. Plus, the new graphene-based optoelectronic chips would reportedly be fast and cheap to manufacture. Recent studies detail other graphene light detectors that are up to 16 times more responsive than previous models. This could mean ‘big things’ for computers and mobile devices.
The benefits of graphene in computer chips have not come as a surprise, but rather a vindication, according to researchers. In July, scientists from the UK’s University of Bath reported that the use of graphene has the potential to increase internet speeds by 100 times.
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