A team of researchers has discovered that graphene can be stretched to create tiny nanobubbles in which electrons generate the same energy levels that otherwise would require an extremely strong magnetic field. The discovery provides a clue to the manipulation of electrons in graphene, which in turn could lead to a new generation of ultra-small, ultra-efficient electronic devices.
Like it or not, the global tide of electronic gear appears to be only at the beginning of a long and unstoppable rise, creating an enormous obstacle to the delivery of enough sustainable energy to meet the growing demand. One solution is to create a new electronics platform that is far more efficient than anything currently in production, and that’s where graphene comes in.
Graphene was discovered just a few years ago, and researchers are only beginning to unlock its potential for improving energy efficiency in electronics. Graphene is a form of carbon that occurs in sheets just one atom thick. The atoms form a hexagonal pattern similar to chicken wire. Graphene is superstrong and could function as an extraordinarily efficient conductor – if only it can be manipulated into a useful form. One solution is being developed at the University of South Florida, where researchers supported by the National Science Foundation have developed a method for making graphene “nanowires.” At Rice University, researchers are looking into the use of graphene’s sister material, graphane, as an insulator, and chemists at the University of Chicago are developing ways to coax graphene into shapes by applying drops of water.
Strain and Energy Efficiency
The “bubble” discovery was one of those happy accidents. It occurred when researchers grew graphene on a platinum crystal, which threw the hexagonal pattern out of whack. That resulted in triangular “bubbles” that have their own individual energy levels, in contrast to a continuous range of energy across an unstrained sheet of graphene. The application of atomic-level strain to achieve new physical properties in a material is not limited to graphene. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers applied a phenomenon called lattice strain to yttria-stabilized zirconia (yttrium is a silvery metal) and discovered that the new configuration increased the material’s conductivity by four orders of magnitude.
Image: Bubbles by Jeff Kubina on flickr.com.