Computers have come a long way since being introduced in the 1940s. The very first computer took up about 1,800 square feet and weighed nearly 50 tons. Now, they are small enough to take anywhere and with even more capabilities. They’ve expanded into phones, tablets, and other electronic devices that we rely on for daily life.
Electronic devices with flexible displays for healthcare, driving, and other everyday uses are becoming more and more in demand. It is challenging to have those devices also be transparent, stretchable, and lightweight while keeping their thermal, environmental, and mechanical capabilities the same. Lighter and more flexible computers often sacrifice durability. Likewise, stronger ones sacrifice portability. Combining both into one perfect device is yet to be done.
The solution may lie in graphene. This relatively new material was discovered in 2004, won its discoverers a Nobel Prize in 2010, and is now beginning to change the world. Graphene is made from carbon and forms a hexagonal shape, making it thinner than a human hair but stronger than steel. More qualities make it a frontrunner in replacing other substances in daily life like plastic, certain types of metal, and many construction materials.
Graphene’s conductivity makes it a prime contender for building electronic devices. Graphene is capable of 10 times more heat than copper, and can conduct 250 times more electricity than silicon. If graphene replaced silicon in computers, the processors would use less power and run about 1,000 times faster. On top of that, graphene is over 200 times stronger than steel — meaning that if you drop a graphene-made laptop, it will remain virtually untouched. The material has also exhibited water resistant traits, meaning that a graphene-based electronic device would also be protected from the elements.
Flexibility is another of graphene’s advantages when used for creating computers. South Korean scientists at Yonsei University demonstrated an “entangled graphene mesh network” (EGMN) that is highly stretchable and stable under harsh conditions. Graphene is placed on a copper base, chemical vapor deposition is used to immerse it into an etchant solution. Then, small holes form, allowing it to crumble, wrinkle and bend. To further graphene’s stretching capabilities, the solution’s EGMNs get transferred into materials like polyimide, stretchable latex, and silicon dioxide. The final substance is bendable and able to be applied to engineering various forms of technology.
Though graphene has tremendous capabilities for the digital world, it has obstacles to overcome before being accepted into mainstream society. Graphene’s high electric conductivity is both its greatest strength and weakness, and its lack of band gap means it cannot control the flow of electricity to its processors. Before graphene can address issues of durability and flexibility, we will need to find solutions for its various weaknesses.
Despite setbacks, developments in graphene are making strides every day. Researchers at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology have developed a graphene-like substance with silicon’s band gap, bringing graphene closer to being used in electronic products. The computer’s journey over the past century is impressive. With graphene’s help, it is sure to make more strides beyond our wildest imagination. Watch closely for graphene to transform how we use technology in the years to come.