Over the last few decades, we have become unbelievably spoiled with technology. Everything is becoming faster, slimmer, lighter and more efficient. The materials that we produce our gadgets with are becoming more impressive seemingly by the day.
By now you’ve probably heard of graphene, if not you can read more about it’s potential capabilities here. Graphene has been lauded as the perfect future material for our technological needs, but it does have one major flaw: it conducts electricity too well at this point to be used in electronics. Graphene in it’s purest form is unable to control the electricity flowing through it; it would thus be difficult to make future gadgets out of it. Fortunately, there have been a couple of recent major breakthroughs in the supermaterial realm including a genetic modification to graphene and a material cousin. Both hold a lot of promise for the future of sweet gadgets.
In order for graphene to be implemented into devices we can use, it needed to become a better transistor. Transistors are the fundamental key to modern electronic devices; they are the water faucets of electronics in that they control the flow of energy within a device. Scientists from the University of Exeter in the UK have devised a graphene hybrid that addresses the issue of uncontrollable electricity. These researchers added ferric chloride (a mix of iron and chlorine) into two layers of graphene to increase it’s electrical conductivity, and make it fit as a transistor. The team thought long and hard, and eventually called the new material ‘GraphExeter.’ GraphExeter is still just as transparent, flexible and strong as graphene, but now has a controlled flow to it. Lead researcher Dr. Monica Craciun believes that “GraphExeter could revolutionize the electronics industry. It outperforms any other carbon-based transparent conductor used in electronics and could be used for a range of applications, from solar panels to ‘smart’ teeshirts.”
The first transistors ever used were initially made out of germanium, but they were often inefficient at high temperatures. While many in the scientific community doubted a better alternative was possible, a gentleman by the name of Gordon Teal, working for Texas Instruments, introduced the first silicon transistor to the world in 1954. Silicon performed well at any necessary temperature, and has been vital to electronics ever since. Silicon has continued to be used for computer chips and transistors as we really haven’t had a better alternative.
Multiple groups of researchers worldwide have confirmed the existence of a cousin to graphene and offspring of silicon called silicene. It may sound silly, but silicene is essentially the silicon equivalent to graphene, being only one atom thick. Since silicon is already entrenched in the way we make computers, silicene seems to be a natural fit. What scientists did to create silicene was rather intriguing; basically growing it from a vapor onto a surface made out of pure silver. They tested the structure of the material, and it matches up to the hypothesized structure of silicene. The next major step is to figure out a better way to harvest silicene so it’s properties can be tested on the battlefield.
The real world ramifications of either graphene becoming a better transistor or silicene being easier to produce, is that our electronics will continue to shrink and flex. Paper-thin Phones and music players that roll or fold into your pocket are inevitable. Though wearable electronics are on the horizon, current models will look bulky and outdated compared to what we can do if we manifest the power of one of these amazing materials.
Scientists have not yet ruled out a third super material that could shape our lives. Although not much published research exists, but it is widely believed that a one atom thick layer of germanium, dubbed germanene or germanicene, could hold some exciting future applications as well. Just as cell phones and computers of ten years ago look ridiculous, you can expect the same to be true in another 5-10, and these super carbons will more than likely be to blame.
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