Thursday, May 21, 2009

Graphene Is Strange

NIST and Georgia Tech have been looking at graphene (a single layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal grid pattern) and they are seeing some strange behavior.

Graphene’s exotic behaviors present intriguing prospects for future technologies, including high-speed, graphene-based electronics that might replace today’s silicon-based integrated circuits and other devices. Even at room temperature, electrons in graphene are more than 100 times more mobile than in silicon.

Graphene apparently owes this enhanced mobility to the curious fact that its electrons and other carriers of electric charges behave as though they do not have mass. In conventional materials, the speed of electrons is related to their energy, but not in graphene. Although they do not approach the speed of light, the unbound electrons in graphene behave much like photons, massless particles of light that also move at a speed independent of their energy.

This weird massless behavior is associated with other strangeness. When ordinary conductors are put in a strong magnetic field, charge carriers such as electrons begin moving in circular orbits that are constrained to discrete, equally spaced energy levels. In graphene these levels are known to be unevenly spaced because of the “massless” electrons.
When something so unusual comes up in a lab it means a lot of potential applications that can't even be imagined now. One of the reasons for the lack of imagination is that such a material was not even suspected so why would you even spend any time thinking about what you could do with such a material? However, with the current research mapping out such properties the floodgates are open.
The Georgia Tech/NIST team tracked these massless electrons in action, using a specialized NIST instrument to zoom in on the graphene layer at a billion times magnification, tracking the electronic states while at the same time applying high magnetic fields. The custom-built, ultra-low-temperature and ultra-high-vacuum scanning tunneling microscope allowed them to sweep an adjustable magnetic field across graphene samples prepared at Georgia Tech, observing and mapping the peculiar non-uniform spacing among discrete energy levels that form when the material is exposed to magnetic fields.

The team developed a high-resolution map of the distribution of energy levels in graphene. In contrast to metals and other conducting materials, where the distance from one energy peak to the next is uniformly equal, this spacing is uneven in graphene.

The researchers also probed and spatially mapped graphene’s hallmark “zero energy state,” a curious phenomenon where the material has no electrical carriers until a magnetic field is applied.
Expect to hear more about this material and its close relative, carbon nanotubes, in the not too distant future. I can't wait to find out what the applications might be.

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