In 2010, two Russian émigré physicists from Manchester University in the UK shared a Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on a new “wonder material”: graphene. Kostya Novoselov and Andre Geim discovered this flat sheet of carbon just one atom thick by experimenting with plain old sticky tape.
Graphene is highly conductive, transparent, and also the strongest material known to science – and could one day revolutionise electronics. Professor Novoselov tells us about the possibilities of this 2D material and how it could transform the industry. This is an edited transcript.
What does graphene mean for the future of computing?
It is certain that silicon will be used for transistors – semiconductor devices which are the building blocks of modern computers – for at least the next five to ten years. But people are already thinking about possible alternative materials and technologies to replace silicon when it will fail to deliver for increasingly smaller and smaller transistors. A graphene transistor is one of the alternatives.
I’m also looking into other one atom thick 2D materials that have been obtained soon after graphene, and at heterostructures based on those 2D crystals. Potentially they can provide an alternative to silicon technologies but here we’re talking about completely new architecture rather than just introducing a new material into the system. It’s hard to predict how it will develop because when you introduce one new material into a process, it’s already quite a complicated step, and if you want to change the whole architecture, it requires years of research. That’s why research should start now if we want to achieve something like that in 10 years’ time.
What do you think computers of the future could look like?
Computers are much more than just a display, interface and software: they are mainly about computing power and microprocessors – also known as the Central Processing Unit (CPU), or the “brain” of a computer. In the future, we’ll probably expand the parallel computations, utilising microprocessors with larger number of cores, when several CPUs will be working together on the same chip, enabling the computer to perform many more tasks with a much greater overall system performance. At the same time, more specialised computers will start to appear because the cost won’t be so prohibitive anymore.
Do you think that in the future, we will still think in terms of separate entities called computers?
Microprocessors will still exist. You won’t get rid of them. How parallel can be the computations and how many computers will be linked into a large network, into a cloud, that’s a different question. And with the advance in telecommunications, with the speed getting higher and higher, it’s much easier to link many computers into a large network. That’s definitely what we’ll see more and more of. We’re seeing it already now, when a lot of our data is stored not on our desktop but in the cloud, and cloud computations will be more and more popular. But at the basis will still be microprocessor and electronics and the current architecture.
What else can graphene be used for?
It’s a very strong material that is also highly conductive, so people try to use it for composite material applications as a mechanical re-enforcer or to enhance conductivity. A particularly interesting application is in biotechnology, life sciences and medicine, where you can use graphene as a sensor, because many properties are interlinked and change the chemical environment and you immediately get an electronic signal out of it. Something that interests me a lot is the use of graphene as a 2D membrane. With graphene, we’ve got our hands on the thinnest possible fabric and at the same time it’s completely impermeable to any molecule. In principle, we can design it so it would be permeable for some molecules and use it as a biological membrane.
How long will it take before graphene really makes it into the industry and commercial use?
It will be a gradual introduction into our day-to-day lives. A good example is carbon fibres. Only a few years ago we started to see planes where carbon fibres are used. But 20 years ago carbon fibres were mostly used for mechanical reinforcements in sports cars and some sports equipment. So it’s never an abrupt change but a gradual introduction, first from niche markets and then going into larger and larger scale applications. And that’s exactly what we already see with graphene – some touch power applications, thermal conductivity applications, mechanical reinforcement, conductive paints, and so on, and the range of those products will increase year by year. As we do it, we’ll learn more and more about the material and about the production, so that the production cost will decrease and the quality will improve. And before long it will be quite a ubiquitous material.
Can graphene lead to completely new technologies, something we can only dream of right now?
One of the areas where I work is ‘materials on demand’. We have a library of different 2D materials – crystals that are only one atom thick. All of them have very different properties: some are metallic, some are insulating, some are semiconductors, some transparent, some opaque and so on. This library can help design new 3D materials, just putting 2D sheets layer by layer – not as Mother Nature meant to be but combining different materials into a different stack, and this way encoding functionalities as we build this stack. I call it ‘materials on demand’ because depending on your application and what you want to achieve, you can design this stack according to your needs. We’ve never had this opportunity before – we’re usually stuck with one material but here we can design new multifunctional materials from scratch.
How will this and other latest breakthroughs in material science transform the industry?
We will bring functionality from the structural level to the material level. So rather than saying that we take silicon and re-structure it into transistors to do certain functions, we now say: “Tell us what functions should there be and we will design a material that will have those functions.” It’s a completely new paradigm, we’re bringing the functionality from the structural level to the material level. And generally the hope is that it will be a multifunctional material – so within a few layers of atoms we will be able to encode the logic circuit, the power unit, and so on. You would have a flexible, transparent or semi-transparent, multifunctional material that has functions encoded into its structure.
Interview by Katia Moskvitch for the World Economic Forum.
Author: Kostya Novoselov is Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester. He is participating in the science programme of Davos 2015.
Image: Konstantin Novoselov of Russia (L) receives the Nobel Prize in Physics from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf during the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm December 10, 2010. REUTERS/Claudio Bresciani/Pool.