They don’t call it Silicon Valley for nothing. The element that gave the place its name also provides the primary material for the microchips that currently power our computers.
But a new study out of the Universities of Bath and Exeter provides the strongest evidence yet that graphene, an atom-thick honeycomb-shaped substance of incredible strength, has the potential to steal the semiconductor crown, accelerating internet speeds by 100 times.
“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,” said Dr. Enrico Da Como, the lead researcher on the study.
The anecdotal measure suggested by scientists regarding graphene’s strength is that it would take an elephant balanced on a sharpened pencil to penetrate the stuff. This is all to say that it’s 200 times stronger than steel, and many times thinner than a human hair. Its strength will likely have other applications, but it’s as a conductor that graphene is proving itself superior to regular fibre optic material.
Graphene beats the speed of a standard optic switch, which requires a few picoseconds (a trillionth of a second), slashing speeds to a couple femtoseconds (approximately 100 times faster).
Graphene’s discoverers, using advanced scientific instruments such as adhesive tape and ordinary pencils, were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their find. Since then, over 200 companies have begun conducting research on incorporating graphene into their products, not to mention governments and their respective defense departments, with real-world tech likely to hit the market within 18 months.
Researchers at Northwestern University have already made a graphene electrode that allows a lithium-ion battery to store as much as 10 times the power and recharge 10 times as fast as a normal battery.
For all the miracle applications the new material promises, such as for surgical and nanotechnology purposes, get ready for a world of “invisible missiles” (already being workshopped by the Israeli army) and invisibility cloaks (being perfected now at the University of Dallas).
Silicon Valley will likely keep its name as a legacy acknowledgement of the stuff that built the place. But there’s a new chip in town, although its headquarters may move to China, where 73% of the world’s known graphite reserves are ready to be mined. China has already slapped a 20% export tariff and a 14% value added tax on the stuff, sending prices skyward as demand for graphite increases.
Here in Canada, however, Northern Graphite Corp. (TSX-V: NGC) is set to start production in 2014 in its Bissett Creek mine facility. “The pilot plant results have confirmed that the Bissett Creek deposit will produce entirely large flake, high carbon concentrates from flotation alone, without chemical or thermal treatment,” says CEO Greg Bowes. As a result, we believe that Bissett Creek concentrates will have the highest average value per tonne in the industry and that this will also result in the highest margin in the industry. We will have the option of selling them into current high value markets, or using them to produce spherical graphite for Li ion batteries if it is financially advantageous to do so.”
Union Securities is bullish on the company’s potential. “We believe that the Company has the required technical and managerial capacities to meet its permitting and construction goals, and will ultimately succeed in bringing Bissett Creek into production. As Northern Graphite demonstrates this in the short and medium term, this will be reflected in the target price going forward,” said a recent report from analyst Philip Ker.
Experts from the world of academia concur. “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,” says University of Bath professor Simon Bending.
So the race is on. The private sector and governments worldwide are currently scrambling to develop applications and file patents for the stuff, but their battle against the Chinese control of the resource brings to mind the rare earth metals boom that was caused by similar circumstances a few years ago.