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Graphene Semiconductor Investing

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted July 16, 2013

Graphene continues to surprise and to offer big promises for our future.

So far, we’ve discovered that it’s amazingly thin, has much greater tensile strength than steel, is a great electrical conductor, can have its magnetism turned on and off, can be used as a promising heatsink, can be crucial to realizing flexible-screen devices, and can be used as a supercapacitor, portending radically better batteries. That’s quite a list for a single material.

Graphene StructureNow, GigaOm reports that researchers from the Universities of Bath and Exeter have implemented graphene in their work, where it has been used in the process of converting data into pulses of light. The big news is that using graphene made this conversion process 100 times faster. Why does this spell good news for us?

The conversion process I mentioned above is one that is commonly undertaken by optical switches (relying on semiconductors) across Internet fibers all over the world. It’s how the Internet works, and it’s how we send all our cat pictures to friends and family.

In short, using graphene as the semiconducting material, we can drastically increase the potential speed of Internet connectivity.

Several layers of graphene were used in the optical switch. That reduces its conductivity slightly, since graphene’s thinness is actually key to its amazing conductive abilities. Nonetheless, it was still thin enough that it could compete with other conducting materials.

From GigaOm:

“The more we find out about graphene the more remarkable its properties seem to be. This research shows that it also has unique optical properties which could find important new applications,” University of Bath professor Simon Bending said in a release.

Here’s the actual research, if you want to go into the gritty details.

It’s been found that the graphene-based optical switch can respond in about 100 femtoseconds. That means a response rate of about 100 times faster than what’s possible with the conventional devices we’re using today.

IEEE Spectrum quotes lead researcher Dr. Enrico Da Como:

“We’ve seen an ultrafast optical response rate, using few-layer graphene, which has exciting applications for the development of high speed optoelectronic components based on graphene. This fast response is in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, where many applications in telecommunications, security, and also medicine are currently developing and affecting our society.”

Implications for Telecoms and Beyond

The implications of such dramatic improvements in the speed of optical switch response rates cannot be emphasized enough. Consider that every hour, we’re transmitting enormous amounts of information all over the world through a variety of opto-electronic devices like optical fibers, photo-detectors, and laser beams. In sum, these signals are sent via photons operating at infrared wavelengths.

The signals are then processed by optical switches, which convert the signals into pulses of light. You can see, then, that the processing (or conversion) time becomes a key bottleneck. After all, we’re not quite at the point where we can speed light up even more.

But we can do something to improve the processing time, which directly implies massive improvements for the communication transmission speed overall.

Graphene is already a material that’s attracting major interest from smartphone manufacturers. It makes sense that it’d have much to offer telecommunications as well. But the implications spread even beyond that.

In the future, we could see graphene-based quantum cascade lasers, which are crucial in monitoring pollution, security applications, and spectroscopic devices. “Few-layer” graphene, as R&D Mag calls it, could become hot property for a wide range of industries.

It’s the longer-term goal of the Exeter and Bath research team to develop their discovery for application toward the aforementioned quantum cascade lasers, which means other companies or research groups will have to push the discovery’s implications for telecommunications further.

Nonetheless, given the amount of interest graphene is generating from a wide range of industries, it can’t be long before someone else steps up to the plate. Right now, a lot of people are interested in pursuing graphene research. The problem is that for all its wonderful properties and apparent applications, we’re still not at a point where we can pitch one direct real-world application—the killer app, so to speak.

It’s possible that graphene batteries could be the key. Or it could be graphene heatsinks in transistors and processors. Or it could be graphene-based optical switches. We’re going to have to wait and see.


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