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Atom-Thin Material Could Replace Silicon For Chips

MIT researchers are developing a nanoscopic material that looks like chicken wire under a microscope to create the next generation of processors.

The next generation of computer chips may soon be here if a newly developed nanoscopic material pans out.

MIT researchers said this week that graphene could be used for smaller, faster chips and to make electrodes for light-emitting diodes and other light-based applications. MIT researchers also are studying the possibility of using graphene for solar cell applications and electrical connections with reduced heat and low resistance. Finally, it may be useful in quantum-based electronic devices.

Pure graphene is made from carbon atoms alone. It's transparent, only as thick as one atom, and 200 times the strength of steel. Under a microscope, the nanoscopic material looks like chicken wire.

"It's the most extreme material you can think of," Tomas Palacios, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, said in a statement released Tuesday.

Palacios and his team are working on using graphene to make frequency multipliers to enable faster computer chips and communications devices. That group is one of several MIT teams researching graphene, its properties, uses, and how to produce quantities sufficient for extensive research.

In 1947, there was widespread skepticism when scientists theorized that graphene could be produced, and the disbelief continued into the 1960s when researchers began working with multiple layers of graphene.

In 2004, researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom published a paper confirming its discovery and existence. They did so by applying tape to a block of graphite, the material of pencil lead, and peeling tiny fragments off and placing them on the smooth surface of another material. That method is still used by researchers today, and graphene is now among the most popular topics in physics.

Jing Kong, an ITT Career Development associate professor of electrical engineering, is working with a team on ways to increase production. One method they have devised is to create sheets of graphene using chemical vapors and equipment that's compatible with semiconductor processing. That method is sufficient for studying graphene use in solar-cell electrodes, but the quality and uniformity of the sheets must be improved before the method can be used for specialized functions like computer chips, she said.

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