Graphene, a form of the element carbon and theorized to exist in a single atom thick lattice layer of hexagonal atoms, was a fantasy--a purely theoretical possibility--when it was proposed in 1947. It lingered in scientists' imaginations because of its intriguing structural properties.
In the 1960s MIT EECS and Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus and her husband Gene Dresselhaus, physicist and currently Visiting Scientist in the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory, and others in the broader scientific community, were working on understanding the properties and potentials of multiple layers of graphene. At the time finding or making a single layer of the substance was considered improbable. As reported by the MIT News Office on May 4, 2009 ("A material for all seasons - MIT teams finding many uses for graphene, the newest form of carbon"), Millie Dresselhaus noted that many people were skeptical about the research.
But graphene, since it was isolated in 2004 by researchers at the University of Mancester, UK, has become a very hot research focus--both for its basic properties and, more significantly, for its potential applications due to these characteristics. EECS Assistant Professor Tomas Palacios and Jing Kong, the ITT Career Development Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, are key research collaborators in one of MIT's more recent research groups exploring graphene's possible electronic applications (see EECS March 19, 2009 Announcement: "Palacios, Kong take initial steps towards new graphene chip besting silicon in speed, efficiency".
As researchers find that the electrical and physical characteristics of silicon--long considered the optimal material for making microchips--have reached constraining limitations, graphene is looking more attractive as a likely successor.
The range of applications for graphene is just beginning to materialize. Due to its single-atom thickness, pure graphene is transparent, making it ideal as transparent electrodes for light-based applications such as LEDs and for improved solar cells. EECS Professor Vladimir Bulovic is now studying this possibility.
Graphene, as a member of the carbon family, like diamond, is also one of the strongest materials and most conductive. These properties in conjunction with its simple structure lead Dresselhaus to comment, "The widespread excitement about graphene is well-deserved, though it remains to be seen what applications will prove to be practical or affordable." She adds, "It has very exceptional properties, and it's simple. It's strong, it's light, and it's relatively inexpensive. I've always liked it."
- MIT News Office, May 4, 2009: "A Material for all seasons - MIT teams finding many uses for graphene, the newest form of carbon."
- MIT News Office, March 19, 2009: "New material could lead to faster chips - Graphene may solve communications speed limit."