Almost 50 years ago, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore came up with a little idea called Moore’s Law, which basically says that computer processors roughly double in efficiency every two years due to advances in technology along with affordability. So how much smaller, faster and cheaper can computers go? Lots, if graphene, the nanomaterial of the new millennium, has anything to say about that.
Discovered just a few years ago, graphene is only the thickness of one atom but it scores on strength and it can function as a conductor. One difficulty to overcome, though, is manipulating “raw” graphene on an atomic level to create a useful material. With support from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of South Florida have accomplished a breakthrough of sorts by developing a way to form precise graphene “nanowires” that are just a few atoms across.
Graphene Nanowires and Sustainable Computers
The ability to construct nanoscale components for electronic devices can’t come a moment too soon. The world is already awash in e-waste, and energy use by computers and data centers is surging. That trend will continue as computers become integrated into more aspects of life in the developed world, and as more people in the developing world enter the consumer marketplace — unless electronic devices become significantly smaller, lighter and more energy efficient.
Graphene – What’s the Catch?
Yes, there is always a catch. Although some researchers have developed methods for producing graphene in bulk, the material is difficult to manipulate with precision. One possible solution has been devised at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where researchers have used nano-sized water droplets as chaperones to coax graphene into complex shapes. At the University of South Florida, researchers were able to construct nanowires by bonding two half-sheets of graphene edge to edge. Instead of forming a seamless whole, the two halves are separated by a defect that emerges in the atomic structure of the graphene sheet, forming a continuous line just a few atoms across. The researchers were able to confirm that this line functions as a nanowire, with its own periodic atomic structure and metallic properties.
Don’t Forget about Carbon Nanotubes
With all the excitement over graphene it’s easy to forget that other new-millenium nanomaterial, carbon nanotubes. Though the two materials handle quite differently, there are some parallels in the emerging developments. Researchers are finding ways to produce carbon nanotubes of different types in bulk, which could significantly lower the cost of production, and at the University of San Diego researchers have found that defective carbon nanotubes can be more efficient at storing energy than their flawless counterparts.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.