The team's research, inspired by graphene, has resulted in a new material through which electrons travel as if in a vacuum.
Engineers from Stanford's Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, inspired by wonder-material graphene, have created a new material dubbed 'molecular graphene' which promises to revolutionise the world of electronics by creating mass-free light-speed electrons.
Carbon allotrope graphene, relatively unknown prior to experiments carried out by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester which saw the pair awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics, is a sheet of carbon atoms just one atom thick. Each carbon atom is joined in a honeycomb lattice, and since its original description by Hans-Peter Boehm in 1962 it's been offering engineers some tantalising technological leaps.
Back in 2007, Princeton engineers worked out how to place transistors on a graphene substrate
for greatly improved performance and power draw. The team's work was improved upon in 2010 when scientists from the University of California produced the first graphene-based transistor operating at 300GHz
Graphene has also been suggested as a means of boosting lithium-ion battery capacity tenfold
, and a previously unnoticed property of graphene which allows it to act as an optical 'diode' promises to vastly improve the speed of fibre-optic networking systems.
On the surface, the research carried out by Hari Manoharan and his team isn't quite as practical. Described in a paper dubbed 'Designer Dirac fermions and topological phases in molecular graphene,' published this week in Nature
, the team's research appears dry and academic. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and it holds substantial promise for the future of electronics.
Inspired by the multifarious possibilities of graphene, Manoharan and his team worked to convince electrons travelling on a copper sheet to organise themselves into a honeycomb arrangement. Placing individual molecules of carbon monoxide onto a copper sheet, they were able to force the electrons on the copper surface to form a graphene-like lattice arrangement. Moving the carbon monoxide molecules controls the electrons by repelling them.
Using this control, Manoharan's team was able to trick the electrons into behaving as though they had been exposed to a massive magnetic field in the range of 60 Tesla - some 30 per cent stronger than anything ever recorded. The results were staggering: the electrons began to behave as though there were completely free of mass, travelling through the copper at the speed of light exactly as they would in a vacuum.
As the name suggests, 'electronics' is all about the movement of electrons. By boosting the speed of the electrons, Manoharan and his team have potentially hit upon a means of greatly improving the performance of electronic components.
The research is far from ready for commercial implementation, of course, but Manoharan has indicated that his team will be working on using the new material as a test bed for future exploitation as well as creating new nanoscale materials with similarly impressive properties.