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Skynet watch: Graphene – Get ready for a paradigm shift…

The information age, also commonly known as the computer age or digital age, is an idea that the current age will be characterized by the ability of individuals to transfer information freely, and to have instant access to knowledge that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously.

–Wikipedia, master of all knowledge and… stuff

 

The information age was made possible by the advent of the personal computer. It started slowly in the 70′s… and then exploded in the 90′s. It’s a

story that the children of the future will need to learn about in a boring history class, but we have had the privilege of living through it. Personal computers were made possible by the hard work of many, and the efficient utilization of one element in particular, silicon. Silicon had been around for a good 20 years or so before anyone figured out that it could be used for an integrated circuit, which is what allowed us to go from computers that filled a giant room, to computers that filled part of a room. Eventually some crafty folks figured out how to use those integrated circuits to fit a computer on a desk 30 years later. From there computers have shrunk down to a size that fits in the palm of your hand, and then down to sizes that are just plain silly. The picture to the right, is as small as they come right now. In February of 2011, researchers made this computer that measures just over one cubic millimeter. It has a microprocessor, a battery, a solar cell, a wireless radio, and an antenna…

Silicon is a fantastic material that works quite well as a semiconductor. It’s also great for breast implants, which some would argue helped push the envelope for technology in a different way. Breast implants -> better porn -> porn drives the internet, marketing and media technology -> people actually give half a crap about computers because there’s porn on them -> people demand faster computers and internet connections. You can roll your eyes and be a prude all you want… but your ignorance doesn’t change the fact that sex was a huge driving force behind today’s technology, and breast implants definitely played a role in this.

Back to the main point, silicon is a great semiconductor. I’d love to go in to detail about how semiconductors work… but that would end up boring most of you to the point of falling asleep on your keyboard, or never returning to this site again… so I’ll just point you in the direction of a nice explanation with pictures, for those of you who want to learn more. HowStuffWorks.com has a great article on how semiconductors work, so Click Here to learn something/fall asleep. Simply put, semiconductors are materials that normally are weak insulators (don’t conduct electricity), but can be slightly modified or “doped” to make little routes for electricity to flow through. The electrons will follow the path of least resistance, wherever the semiconductor has been modified to be more conductive, or less resistant, they will flow faster. This allows us to guide the electrons through a maze of sorts, and the resulting output can be used to do computation. Add a pinch of ingenuity, and you have yourself the basics of modern day computing. Silicon does have some limitations though. After a certain point, you just can’t make silicon based circuits any smaller without leaking some energy, which makes them more error prone, and less efficient.

So what’s the next step? If silicon is our weapon of choice for semiconductors, what can possibly trump it? Many say the future is in superconductors. The difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor, is that superconductors don’t have very little, or no resistance at all. They aren’t insulators, they don’t really allow us to control where the electrons go, but they do allow electrons to flow through them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The more resistance a material has when conducting electricity, the more heat it will generate. If you were to rub your hands together, there would be a little bit of friction, or resistance. Your hands resist moving more as you apply more pressure. As a result there is more friction, and more heat is generated. This is essentially is what happens on an atomic level when you have a material that has any sort of electrical resistance. Superconductors don’t have this heat problem, because the electrons are free to fly through the material with no resistance at all, like greased lightning.

All of the known superconductors up until 2004, have required super cooled environments to achieve a superconductor state (I think scientists get a kick out of using the word super). A new discovery has opened the door to possibly achieving superconductivity without being cool as a cucumber though, and it goes by the name Graphene! Hah! I bet you thought I’d never get to the damn point, did you? Graphene is the new kid on the block, and it’s making some waves in the scientific community. It is the thinnest, strongest, and most conductive material in the world. It’s known by some as the “wonder material”.

“Our research establishes graphene as the strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel… It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap”

–James Hone, of Columbia University

 

It has already been utilized for solar panels and optical related fields. Some hope that it will offer a huge boost to current fiber optics technology. Samsung has reported that it hopes to have a dozen of graphene based displays available on the market within the next 5 years. Graphene based displays will be thinner, and flexible (due to how thin and strong the material can be). Here’s some Sony OLED technology that is sort of an example of what can be done when a display gets super thin and flexible.

Currently researchers have not found a way to switch the flow of electricity on and off, as can be done with silicon, but they haven’t given up hope. The answer to using graphene for processing, might not be that we need to find a way to use graphene as we use silicon, but rather that we need to figure out a way to use graphene to do calculations as we do with silicon… but in a different way. There’s more than one way to skin a cat as they say. For instance, consider how some products can be made out of various materials, even something as simple as a box. There are cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, metal boxes, stone boxes, plastic boxes… you could even make a box out of ice. They all serve the same function, but all of them would be manufactured in completely different ways. You can’t make a cardboard box the same way you make a stone box. A stone box would need to be made by carving the inner part of the box away until it was hollow inside. A cardboard box could be made this way, but it makes much more sense to create a sheet of it and then bend it to the appropriate shape, and then fasten the bottom together using staples or tape. So just as we have found many ways to make boxes out of a variety of materials, all we need to do with graphene, is figure out a way to get it to generate the output we need for computation.

In the meantime there are many other uses for this wonder material that can be developed and improved upon. One day we may even find a unique use for this material that no other material allowed us to do before. It certainly has a lot of potential. One very huge benefit of this material, is that it’s extremely common. How common? Ever use a graphite pencil? Well the graphite in the pencil, is what is used to create graphene. Researchers discovered the material by using nothing more than a graphite pencil and scotch tape… Some graphite dust was placed on the tape, and then they stuck more tape on top of it. When they peeled the tape apart, some of the graphite stuck to one piece of tape, and the rest stuck to the other piece. Then they got a fresh piece of tape, and stuck it to one of the pieces of those pieces of tape, and pulled those two pieces apart, and repeated this process over and over. Eventually all that was left on the tape was a very very thin layer of graphite, only 1 atom thick! That single layer of atoms that came from the graphite, is what we now know as graphene. And I bet you were thinking that pencils were going out of style! This guy has a good way of wording this so I definitely recommend checking this video out:

So all of that being said, we have a lot to look forward to. Graphene could allow us to advance our technology well beyond it’s current state, in a very short period of time. There’s some speed bumps to get over, that’s for sure, but if you look at the history of modern day computing, it’s really nothing more daunting than what researchers faced back in the 1940′s. According to the Law of Accelerating Returns, there will be an exponentially exponential growth of technology, and eventually we will hit a singularity that will completely blow our minds… Graphene may be the key to that further growth, in more ways than we currently can imagine.

Oh mighty Skynet… we hope you show us mercy…