Strips of carbon synthesized by UC Berkeley professors to be nearly 10,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair could accelerate the transportation of data at unprecedented speeds, with far-reaching implications in the fields of technology and medicine.
Felix Fischer, a campus assistant professor of chemistry, led the research, which involved the construction of strips of carbon, or graphene nanoribbons, in hopes to more efficiently transport data. He was assisted by the research teams of UC Berkeley professors Mike Crommie and Jeffrey Bokor.
The goal of such nanoribbon technology is to improve the performance of electronic devices by making them faster and more efficient while also reducing energy consumption and lengthening battery life.
These graphene nanoribbons are roughly one atom thick and 15 atoms wide — thin enough to be considered two-dimensional — and are created by fusing carbon atoms together. The two-dimensional nature of graphene allows for transportation of data at extremely fast speeds — faster than silicon, the element currently used in most computer chips.
Instead of cutting the nanoribbons out of larger strips of carbon, Fischer’s approach was to construct them from molecular building blocks by assembling 50 atoms at a time using a “bottom-up approach,” which he compared to “sculpting with LEGO blocks.”
The sculpting process involved heating up a lined set of molecules to induce chemical reactions that would leave carbon atoms tightly bound together in a ribbon structure. This unique method created uniform and precise nanoribbons; a more consistent ribbon structure allowed for better testing of its potential uses, such as acting as semiconductors in transistors or switches that turn currents on and off.
Though graphene nanoribbon technology was just discovered about 10 years ago, scientists are already buzzing with excitement about its extraordinary electricity- and heat-conducting capabilities and its potential uses in computer transistors.
“We are currently building materials that mimic the basic functions within an integrated circuit architecture,” Fischer said in an email, adding that the research is currently in an early stage of development. “Potential applications can be envisioned in any area of high performance electronics from computing to controlling to sensing.”
In addition to computers, these nanoribbons have potential medical applications, among other fields, due to graphene’s high environmental sensitivity, which means it can detect light, temperature and chemical structures.
“If you wanted to measure your blood sugar levels, for example, (grapheme nanoribbons) would be able to do this very accurately,” Fischer said. “But this is a far-reaching goal.”
According to Patrick Gorman, one of Fischer’s graduate students who has worked on the project since its beginning in fall 2011, successfully implemented nanoribbons could lead to carbon-based computing, which would be an exciting new step.
“Computers might be on thin films,” Gorman said. “You might have a computer sewn into your clothing.”