It has long been known that graphene can serve as a superconductor or insulator. But in February 2021, MIT researchers discovered that this material, an atom-thick layer of carbon arranged in a hexagonal pattern, is even more versatile than anyone might have imagined: It also exhibits ferroelectrical qualities. In other words, it spontaneously polarizes.

That discovery “may pave the way for an entire generation of new ferroelectrics materials,” as Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, the MIT physics professor who led the study, put it in a post on the university’s website.

Specifically, the post noted the implications for neuromorphic computing, a type of computing that approximates the workings of the human brain and nervous system. As noted on the site, it does so by creating something known as spiking neural networks, “where spikes from individual electronic neurons activate other neurons down a cascading chain.”

And that, the post added, is not unlike the manner in which signals are exchanged between the brain and neurons in various parts of the body. 

There is some expectation that this technology will come into vogue in the very near future, as legacy systems grow outdated and a need arises in certain specific technological areas — that it will not necessarily displace traditional computing so much as augment it. Emre Neftci, assistant professor in cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and head of the university’s Neuromorphic Machine Intelligence Lab, cited for HPE the example of artificial intelligence at the edge. Other use cases will certainly arise, as evidenced by the fact that Emergen Research projects that by 2027, the neuromorphic processing market will balloon to $11.29 billion.

Certainly MIT’s discovery about graphene represents another significant step in that direction. The breakthrough about ferroelectricity, which to date has been notably used in such things as medical ultrasounds and Radio Frequency ID (RFID) cards, was the result of Jarillo-Herrero and his team sandwiching two layers of graphene between layers of boron nitride.

While opposite charges are normally attracted to one another in most materials, that was not the case in this study, which built upon work done by the same team in 2018. In fact, the result was a form of ferroelectricity that differs from that which had previously been seen.

Harvard physics professor Philip Kim, who was not involved in this research, called this development “fascinating” in the piece on the MIT site and added:

“This work is the first demonstration that reports pure electronic ferroelectricity, which exhibits charge polarization without ionic motion in the underlying lattice. This surprising discovery will surely invite further studies that can reveal more exciting emergent phenomena and provide an opportunity to utilize them for ultrafast memory applications.” 

In other words, we are just scratching the surface of everything graphene can do, which stands to reason — it was only discovered in 2004. As exciting as this development is, more certainly lies ahead.