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An international research team has paired graphene with boron nitride to pave the way for a new generation of ultra-small, nanoscale circuits.


Graphene’s New BFF Pushes Plasmons Farther, Faster

An international research team has paired graphene with boron nitride to pave the way for a new generation of ultra-small, nanoscale circuits.

So let’s say you’re trying to make ultra-tiny, nanoscale circuits out of little more than waves of light and electrons called plasmons, and you’re getting really frustrated because you know that graphene is the “little more than” material that fits the bill, only your plasmons poop out before anything particularly useful happens.

If you’re still stuck on that problem, you might as well move on to the next problem because an international research team has just solved it. That’s a huge deal because it could lead to the next level down in the miniaturization of circuits for sensors, computers, and communications.

propogating plasmons with graphene

Simulation and observations of propagating plasmons in boron nitride heterostructure (rendering credit: ICFO).

The Plasmon Problem

For those of you new to the topic, we’ve been calling graphene the nanomaterial of the new millennium. It’s simply a sheet of carbon just one atom thick, but it is super strong. More to the point, its distinctive chicken-wire structure gives it many unique and mysterious properties that researchers are only just beginning to unravel.

Those properties make graphene an ideal material for developing ultra-small circuits based on plasmons, in which electrons and light to interact together in one integrated wave.

To give you an idea just how ultra-small, the wavelength of plasmons guided by graphene is measured in nanometers and a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. According to the press materials, it clocks in at “up to two hundred times below the wavelength of light.”


The problem is that the frisky little plasmons quickly run out of energy and they can’t get very far. Think of the most spastic kitten you’ve ever seen, and you’ll get the drift.

Solving The Plasmon Problem With Graphene And Boron Nitride

The team that solved the problem consists of researchers from ICFO and CIC nanoGUNE of Spain, CNR/Scuola Normale Superiore of Italy, and the US’s Columbia University (New York).

We covered Columbia’s “white graphene” research breakthrough last year, so the new development presents an interesting followup.

White graphene is another name for boron nitride, another two-dimensional material that happens to be an excellent insulator.

The research team enclosed graphene in boron nitride and found that electrons will move “ballistically” for quite some distance (relatively speaking, of course) in the material without scattering. As an extra bonus, the phenomenon occurs at room temperature.

creating plasmons in boron nitride heterostructure (with graphene)

Microscopic version of ICFO rendering (see previous image, credit: ICFO).

Here’s CIC nanoGUNE professor Rainer Hillenbrand enthusing about the discovery:

Now we can squeeze light and at the same time make it propagate over significant distances through nanoscale materials. In the future, low-loss graphene plasmons could make signal processing and computing much faster, and optical sensing more efficient.

There are many more steps to come before you can get your hands on a ballistic plasmon nanocircuit, but the research team already has a jump on things with a theoretical study in collaboration with the IIT Graphene Labs of Genova. The new study provides a more complete understanding of the interactions between light, electrons, and the material infrastructure of a circuit.

How About A Graphene Car?

Since we just got back from the Detroit auto show, we’re still a little car-happy and all this graphene stuff got us to thinking…you’ve got your superstrong, lightweight material, and lightweighting is all the rage among auto manufacturers, so of course there’s going to be a graphene car on the horizon some day.

Of course there is. The European Union’s Graphene Flagship initiative, to which several of the above-referenced research institutions belong, is also the funder behind a new graphene car initiative called the iGCAuto research collaborative. Members are the University of Sunderland, Centro Ricerche FIAT, Fraunhofer ICT (Germany), Interquimica, and a couple of R&D specialists based in Italy (that would be Nanesa Srl and Delta-Tech SpA).

The goal is to create graphene-based materials that lower the weight of car parts by at least one-third.

An international research team pairing the UK with China also recently announced a new graphene-wrapped composite that could give rise to the next generation of lithium-sulfur batteries.

That’s a lot of fire power, so what’s going on over here in the US?

We have no idea because we haven’t really looked into it yet, but for now let’s just say that Tesla, for one, has been eyeballing graphene for a new long range EV battery as well as a graphene based “paper” that could replace some car parts.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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