Faster — it’s the buzzword of the century. We want it all and we want it faster. Unfortunately, faster is impossible in some cases. We’ll never be able to control how quickly a waitress brings our coffee or how long it takes our children to clean their rooms. We can, however, control the internet and recent research says that yes, we can make it faster — with graphene. 

Currently, we transmit data from the internet using fiber optic cables and electro-optic switches. The data is converted to light at one end, travels at the speed of light through a fiber optic cable, and is interpreted and transmitted at the other end. Fiber optic switches control where the data goes by “switching” electronic circuits on and off. At present, these switches can do their job in a few picoseconds. That’s one trillionth of a second which is impressive, but not as fast as graphene.

While there are new developments still to come, graphene’s breakneck speed is expected to have widespread implications when 5G becomes commonplace. As 2D materials scientist Dr. Nicky Savjani said, “The science of graphene is still in its infancy; we are still learning so much about its fundamental properties.” She did add, however, that new insights are coming at “staggering rates.”

 Scientists have long suspected that incorporating graphene into fiber optic pathways could significantly speed up the internet. The pure carbon substance frequently referred to as the “miracle material” is extremely strong, amazingly thin, and both thermally and electrically conductive. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that researchers at the Universities of Bath and Exeter found a way to prove just how much graphene could speed up optical response rates.

Normal optic switches work by moving their electrons from low to high energy states and back again through what’s known as an energy gap. The response time we measure — meaning the one that has a direct effect on your internet speed — is the length of time it takes for the electron to return to its low energy state. This timeframe is commonly referred to as recombination time. Because graphene conducts energy but doesn’t possess the standard energy gap, it was difficult to accurately identify a recombination time.

The university researchers chose instead to study graphene’s electron behavior in the infrared spectrum as it transitioned between states. What they found was astonishing. An optical switch that used just a few layers of (stacked) graphene responded in a mere one hundred femtoseconds. That’s almost 100 times faster than the fiber optic switches discussed above.  Faster electro-optic switches translate to a faster internet experience.

Subsequent discoveries suggest that graphene computers could be 1,000 times faster, though they remain in the theoretical stage.

Graphene is man-made entirely out of carbon which can be found everywhere. Its abundance means we’re unlikely to run out, so graphene should remain relatively inexpensive despite its increasing popularity across various industries. And, because the material works in conjunction with and not in lieu of fiber optic cables, there’s no need to completely replace current telecommunication systems to achieve upgraded internet response times. Manufacturers would only need to update the switches located at the end of the cables.

Researchers are consistently coming up with new and innovative ways to incorporate graphene into our daily lives. In fact, there were approximately 30,000 graphene-related patent filings between 2004 and 2017. Perhaps a faster internet is only the first in a series of telecommunication upgrades catalyzed by the miracle material.