A researcher at Stanford University has provided strong experimental evidence that ribbons of carbon atoms can be used for future generations of ultrafast processors.
Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford, and his colleagues have demonstrated a new chemical process that produces extremely thin ribbons of a carbon-based material called graphene. He has demonstrated that these ribbons, once incorporated into transistors, show excellent electronic properties. Such properties have been predicted theoretically, Dai says, but not demonstrated in practice. These properties make graphene ribbons attractive for use in logic transistors in processors.
The discovery could lead to even greater interest in the experimental material, which has already attracted the attention of researchers at IBM, HP, and Intel. Graphene, which consists of carbon atoms arranged in a one-atom-thick sheet, is a component of graphite. Its structure is related to carbon nanotubes, another carbon-based material that’s being studied for use in future generations of electronics. Both graphene and carbon nanotubes can transport electrons extremely quickly, which could allow very fast switching speeds in electronics. Graphene-based transistors, for example, could run at speeds a hundred to a thousand times faster than today’s silicon transistors.
But graphene sheets have one significant disadvantage compared with the silicon used in today’s chips. Although graphene can be switched between different states of electrical conductivity–the basic characteristic of semiconductor transistors–the difference between these states, called the on/off ratio, isn’t very high. That means that unlike silicon, which can be switched off, graphene continues to conduct a lot of electrons even in its “off” state. A chip made of billions of such transistors would waste an enormous amount of energy and therefore be impractical.
Researchers had theorized, however, that it might be possible to dramatically improve these on/off ratios by carving graphene sheets into very narrow ribbons just a few nanometers wide. There had been early evidence supporting these theories from researchers at IBM and Columbia University, but the ratios produced were still much lower than those in silicon.
Dai decided to take a different approach to making thin graphene ribbons. Whereas others had used lithographic techniques to carve away carbon atoms, Dai turned to a solution-based approach. He starts with graphite flakes, which are made of stacked sheets of graphene. Then he chemically inserts sulfuric acid and nitric acid molecules between these flakes and rapidly heats them up, vaporizing the acids and forcing the graphene sheets apart. “It’s like an explosion,” Dai says. “The sheets go separate ways, and the graphite expands by 200 times.”
Next, he suspends the now-separated sheets of graphene in a solution and exposes them to ultrasonic waves. These waves break the sheets into smaller pieces. Surprisingly, Dai says, the sheets fracture not into tiny flakes but into thin and very long ribbons. These ribbons vary in size and shape, but their edges are smooth–which is key to having consistent electronic properties. The thinnest of the ribbons are less than 10 nanometers wide and several micrometers long. “I had no idea that these things could be made with such dimensions and smoothness,” Dai says.
When Dai made transistors out of these ribbons, he measured on/off ratios of more than 100,000 to 1, which is attractive for transistors in processors. Previously, room-temperature on/off ratios of graphene ribbons had been measured at about 30 to 1.
Still, many obstacles remain to making graphene processors using Dai’s methods, says Walter de Heer, a physics professor at Georgia Tech. The ribbons made with Dai’s process have to be sorted. Pieces that are too large or not in the shape of ribbons have to be weeded out. There also needs to be a way of arranging the ribbons into complex circuits.
However, researchers already have ideas about how to address these challenges. For example, graphene ribbons have more exposed bonds at their edges, so chemicals could be attached to these bonds that would direct the ribbons to bind to specific places to form complex circuits, de Heer says.
The best way to make graphene electronics, however, may be to take advantage of the fact that graphene can be grown in large sheets, says Peter Eklund, a professor of physics at Penn State. If better lithography methods are developed to pattern these sheets into narrow ribbons and circuits, this could provide a reliable way of making complex graphene-based electronics.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of Dai’s work could be the fact that it has demonstrated electronic properties that were only theoretical before, Eklund says. And this could lead to even more interest in developing graphene for next-generation computers. “Once you get a whiff of narrow graphene ribbons with a high on/off ratio, this will tempt a lot of people to try to get in there and either make ribbons by high-technology lithographic processes, or try to improve the approach developed by Dai,” says Eklund.