If you lived during the computer chip boom of the 1980s, today’s hype around graphene might feel like a flashback. For youngsters who missed that technological revolution, graphene probably seems like a miracle material that will make all of our tech dreams come true…and then some.
Scientists can’t wait to get graphene into their labs, and graphene suppliers are struggling to keep up with the demand for this remarkable nanomaterial. But does graphene really deserve the hype? To find out, we compared the waves silicon made for technology in the 80s with the excitement graphene is spreading throughout the scientific and tech fields today.
Silicon vs. Graphene
Silicon is a naturally-occurring element that’s easily found throughout the world. It’s essential in electronic circuits by working as a “transistor” to moderate a flow of electricity. Because computer chips and semiconductors rely on silicon to work, silicon has become synonymous with technological innovation. It’s inexpensive and easily accessible, and it’s stood the test of time– so far.
Discovered in 2004, graphene is a highly conductive material that also happens to be the thinnest and lightest material known to humans. It’s made from carbon, another naturally-occurring, and extremely abundant element.
Graphene has the potential to unlock all kinds of innovations, including revolutionary medical devices and solar energy inventions that could eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.
The big challenge that scientists face as they try to use graphene as a transistor is its lack of a “band gap.” A band gap is a material’s ability to move electrons between two “bands”: a valance band and a conduction band. Electricity is conducted when electrons move through these bands.
In order to work as a semiconductor, graphene needs a band gap. Scientists are experimenting with ways to shape graphene so that a band gap develops. While scientists have been able to create a small graphene band gap of up to 100meV, it can’t compare with silicon’s band gap of 1.1eV. More research is needed in order to widen this gap before graphene can truly replace silicon.
Luckily, plenty of experimentation is underway to explore the possibilities for creating band gaps in graphene, opening up the possibility for countless technological innovations.
Only time will tell if graphene is up to the job of replacing silicon. In the meantime, graphene suppliers are working to keep a steady flow of this remarkable material available to scientists.