The New Form Of Carbon That Could Change Technology Forever


Decades ago, at the time that I was putting my newly minted physics PhD diploma on the bookshelf, I got a call from a financial analyst.

He had heard about a brand new technology called CMOS and wanted me to explain it to him. His interest was in what financial impact it would have on the electronics industry.

He could not have asked a better question. It turned out that CMOS became a dominant electronics technology (lower power and faster switching).

If he were to ask the same question today, the key word would be graphene, which is a new kind of material, a form of carbon. In the decades in which I have followed the electronics field, the scientific and engineering reaction to this new material is essentially without precedent. Engineering prototypes are being built in labs around the planet. If the promise shown by graphene in the lab translates to manufactured products, a new technology will sweep the industry.

For some years, I have kept a state-of-the-art list of information technology. It includes the smallest this and the fastest that; a records book of sorts. One by one, announcements about graphene based devices are blowing away these old records.

Here is an example. Perusing the one-off devices made of graphene, I notice that many of them have astonishing capabilities for switching electric currents which, in the words of the scientists who won the 2010 Physics Nobel Prize for graphene, are “huge”. By “huge” they mean a million-fold increase. When was the last time you heard of a new device that outperformed the old ones by a factor of one million to one?

Today’s logic chips are notoriously sensitive to excessive electric current flow; they burn out easily, which is a concern across several industries.

Large currents are important in electric cars, the power grid, etc. so there are opportunities there in abundance.

Industrial processes for making graphene on a large scale have been announced and progress is obviously being made in making new graphene devices using existing semiconductor fabs, although no one can say at this point what the retooling costs will be. My guess is that the first commercially successful devices with this new material will have many of the same functions as existing devices but they will be more robust, faster, and generate less heat.

Recall that when the transistor was invented, industrial reaction was to figure out how to incorporate transistors into the vacuum-tube world. Then Japanese engineers famously invented the transistor radio and set off the powerful industrial trend toward miniaturization, low power, and high performance. I doubt that American engineers want that history to repeat, so after a few years there will be a second wave of inventions.

What particularly strikes me about my records book is that many potentialities of this new material are not in my book; in fact, the scientific literature is full of concepts that are not being used in engineering because there has been no material available to facilitate using them; now that has changed.

Something exciting this way comes; and that is what you need to know.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.