Graphene is an incredible material. Essentially a honeycomb lattice of carbon atoms, one atom thick, you rub sheets of it off onto paper every time you use a pencil. But there’s a lot more to it than marking up paper: In theory, it can do everything from create faster computers to make ultra-powerful capacitors to improving solar cells. But the most fascinating application? Creating flexible processors that can be worked into everything from your laptop and smartphone to your pants.
The only problem, though, has been performance: Although graphene processors are lightning fast, once you make them flexible, they get a lot slower, too slow to be useful. At least, they did: It seems the problem keeping you from having a smartphone that doubles as a slap bracelet is almost solved.
The problem has been making transistors. Transistors are, of course, one of the fundamental building blocks of processors, and they don’t flex. But a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin solved the problem by splitting up the process. First, they build the structures using sheets of plastic; they lay everything out and make sure it’s flexible on a practical level. Then, they simply grow a sheet of graphene on a piece of steel and lay it over the plastic. Then they press down.
Yes, really. That’s all. Yes, it does sound like a crafting project.
Why is this important? Well, first of all, graphene and plastic are dirt freaking cheap. Secondly, this means that the circuits can be laid out over large areas and can hit the speeds need to communicate with cellular networks and wireless networks. Imagine a newspaper that updates constantly, or an overlay on your windows that can show text and pictures. Thanks to the University of Texas, we’re one step closer to that future.
Dan Seitz is an obsessive nerd living in New England. He lives in the Boston area with a fiancee, a dog, a cat, and far too many objects with processors.