Few years ago professors at Harvard and MIT published a manifesto calling for cross fertilisation in science. They observed that over the last 300 years Science has become more and more specialised. This has led to amazing results and to the discovery of very specific approaches in each scientific field. With the manifesto the professors claimed that the time has come to take advantage of the progresses in each discipline by applying them to other. The resulting cross fertilisation would allow faster progress in all fields.
Indeed, this is what’s happening.
As a point in case take this news from Technology Review reporting on the approach taken by researchers at Stanford to create graphene ribbons that can be used to make transistors.
Graphene, a single atom layer of carbon, has a much better conductivity than silicon, which means the potential to build electronic components using much less power, and that in turns means less dissipation, higher density, more capacity.
To create transistors, however, you need a material, such as silicon and germanium, that has a clear distinction of states, one where current flows and the other where there is very little or (ideally) no current. This is called band gap.
Unfortunately graphene has a very small band gap, hence it is not suitable for transistors making.
Scientist, however, have observed that ribbons of graphene, 10 nm wide, have a good band gap, sufficient to make a transistor. The problem is how to make such ribbons and deploy them exactly where you want them to be.
Here is where the researchers at Stanford took advantage of bioengineering. They laid strands of DNA in the geometry required (DNA strands are “big, measuring in µm) and have them absorb copper atoms. Then they exposed this geometry to methane and hydrogen gas at hot temperature. This led to the creation of graphene ribbons of the desired size and in the required place. They were not perfect, some ribbons was thicker than one single atoms but they were ok for the job.
We are still very far from developing a chip with transistors made of graphene, the technology that has been developed and perfected over these last 50 years in chip manufacturing is so far unbeatable but what draw my attention was this cross fertilisation in the making. We are still in the research domain but so was the case of the transistor back in the early fifties (after having been created in the 1947). It took silicon more than 20 years to become a chip … Consider that today0s pace of evolution is slightly faster than it was sixty years ago and you see that predicting a graphene chip in the next decade is not science fiction.