British-based scientists have created what they claim is the thinnest material in the world and predict that it will revolutionize computing and medical research.
A layer of carbon has been manufactured in a film only one atom thick that defies the laws of physics.
Placed in layers on top of each other, it would take 200,000 of these membranes to match the thickness of a human hair.
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The substance, graphene, was created two years ago but could be made only when stuck to another material. Researchers at the University of Manchester , England, have now managed to manufacture it as a film suspended between the nanoscale bars of scaffolding made from gold.
Such a feat was held to be impossible by theorists, backed up by experimentation, because it is in effect a two-dimensional crystal that is supposed to be destroyed instantly by heat.
The crystalline membrane, comprising of carbon atoms formed into hexagonal groups to create a honeycomb pattern, is thought to be able to exist because rather than lying flat it undulates slightly.
Undulation provides the structure with a third dimension that gives it the strength to hold together, the researchers have reported in the journal Nature .
The graphene membrane has proved to be so stable that it holds together in vacuums and at room temperature. All other known materials oxidize, decompose and become unstable at sizes ten times the thickness.
It was created by scientists at the University of Manchester, working with the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
“This is a completely new type of technology — even nanotechnology is not the right word to describe these new membranes,” said Professor Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester.
“We have made proof-of-concept devices and believe that the technology transfer to other areas should be straightforward. The real challenge is to make such membranes cheap and readily available for large-scale applications.”
Kostya Novoselov, of the University of Manchester, said that its main applications were expected to be in vastly increasing the speed at which computers could make calculations and in researching new drugs.
The membrane could also be used as a microscopic sieve to separate gases into their constituent parts.
In medical research the membrane, which at single-atom thickness measures 0.35 nanometers, could be used as the support for molecules being analyzed by electron microscopes.
At present the definition of the images provided by electron microscopes is limited by the thickness of the material that the sample molecules rest on.
The thinness of graphene membranes is such that the electrons would have much less irrelevant material to pass through and so be able to give a clearer picture of the structure of molecules, especially the proteins believed to hold the key to a generation of medicines.
Graphene membranes could eventually replace silicon because they have the potential to be a far more effective transistor. Used as a transistor, essentially a switch that stops or lets in an electric current, they have proved to be faster than silicon and use less power.
The transistor experiments were reported in the journal Nature Materials . Leonid Ponomarenko, of the University of Manchester, is optimistic that it can be turned into a commercial success.
“The technology has managed to progress steadily from millimetre-sized transistors to current microprocessors with individual elements down to ten nanometres in size. The next logical step is true nanometer-sized circuits.”