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Scientists Use Copycat Material to Unlock Secrets of Graphene

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The new material, called artificial graphene, enables scientists to take a closer look at the real thing by mimicking its properties.

Natural graphene is a semiconductor, like silicon, but it can pack far more strength and power into a far smaller space.

The problem with natural graphene is its eccentric nature. It comes in sheets of carbon only one atom thick, and it is difficult to study.

Artificial graphene solves the problem by mimicking the distinctive "chicken wire" structure of natural graphene on a slightly larger scale.

The research team that developed the material used other common semiconductors to create a material just a few nanometers thick (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). The surface of the material consists of tiny raised dots arranged in a lattice pattern. Each dot represents a carbon atom.

Artificial graphene serves as a kind of Spark Notes for studying the real thing. It simplifies the complex behavior of carbon atoms and enables researchers to focus on a narrower set of key points.

"You can think of artificial graphene as a nano-sculpture of great perfection," research team member Professor Aaron Pinczuk of Columbia University's engineering department.

Pinczuk says that research based on artificial graphene will result in more powerful computers, including cryptographic devices. Other applications include the next generation of high efficiency solar cells and other lighting devices.

In 2008, another Columbia University engineering research team found that despite its atom-thinness, graphene is the strongest material ever measured, at 200 times the strength of steel.

Graphene also has the ability to conduct electricity much faster than silicon, while remaining at room temperature. As a replacement for silicon, graphene could be used to make a new generation of electronic devices that are inexpensive, energy efficient, lightweight, flexible and even transparent.

The advantage of graphene over silicon is that electrons pass through graphene much more quickly, at room temperature, so you don't have to devote as much energy to keeping the device cool (in other words, graphene is a much more efficient conductor of electricity).

As this BBC article notes, graphene's disadvantage is that it lacks a "band gap," which is a property of silicon that allows it to be switched "off." Some researchers are working on a way to engineer a band gap into graphene; others seem skeptical that can be accomplished any time soon.

The complete artificial graphene report, co-authored by Pinczuk with Vittorio Pellegrini and Marco Polini of the NEST Laboratory of Istituto Nanoscienze-Cnr and Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, teamed with colleagues at Princeton University, the University of Nijmegen and the University of Missouri, is available in the June 3 of Science.