Graphene: Hot new material for cooling gadgets?

UC Riverside researchers explain how graphene, a material with strong heat-conducting properties, could move heat around in silicon chips to prevent damaging hot spots.

graphene schematic
This graphic shows a graphene layer attached to a metal heat sink and suspended across a trench in the silicon wafer. The graphene was heated up via laser beam to measure its thermal conductivity. Alexander Balandin/University of California at Riverside

Smaller, faster gadgets may be cool, but keeping them from getting too hot poses challenges.

Consumer electronics, of course, contain many sources of heat, including interconnecting wiring and millions of transistors. In the past, bigger and bigger fans have been employed to keep chips from overheating, thus expanding a gadget's lifespan. But as electronics continue to shrink, so does the space where fans can be placed.

Alexander Balandin, Suchismita Ghosh
UC Riverside professor Alexander Balandin and graduate student Suchismita Ghosh, who now works at Intel, examine graphene, a material with strong heat-conducting properties. University of California at Riverside

Enter IBM announced that it demonstrated a radio-frequency graphene transistor with the highest frequency so far: 100GHz.

"Graphene is one of the hottest materials right now," said Alexander Balandin, a professor of electrical engineering in the Bourns College of Engineering at UC Riverside who led the research group. "Everyone is talking about it."

The practical problem for graphene is the difficulty producing large, high-quality single-atom layers. Balandin's team found that multiple layers of graphene, which are easier to make than the single-layer versions, still retain the material's heat-conducting properties.

Currently, there is no reliable way to synthesize large quantities of graphene, Balandin said. But with progress being made, he added, wider-scale production could be possible in a year or two.

 

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