Graphene + Copper (not to scale, obviously)
About a year ago, I traveled to Cornell University to interview a bunch of materials scientists who work at the nanoscale level. This means they work with stuff that is very, very tiny. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. One of the challenges nearly all of the scientists kept mentioning is the issue of overheating in electronics. Most of us are directly familiar with the heat released from our computers when we balance them on our lap for a period of time, for example. And this becomes a big deal as devices get smaller and smaller. The smaller the copper wires—which connect chips, among other things—the more heat they emit. This is important for future devices and wearables.
Scientists are exploring all kinds of solutions but a proven one has recently been announced in the journal Nano Letters. We've mentioned the magic material graphene before and it continues to be the superhero material, coming to the rescue over and over again. This time, it shows up as a possible damper for heated copper wires.
Graphene is a one-atom thick material that can move electrons and heat. And it is able to cling to copper. Apparently by sandwiching copper between layers of graphene, the heat created by the metal is decreased by 25 percent. When attached to copper, the graphene actually changes its structure in such a way that allows the heat to move more freely through the metal, instead of being trapped in it.
From left: (1) copper before any processing, (2) copper after thermal processing; (3) copper after adding graphene. Image via UCR Today
This type of solution couldn't come too soon. Especially for transistor developers at Intel, as they are launching devices with 14-nanometer transistor (super small!) made with copper. This may be as small as copper wires will ever get, since copper doesn't work at sizes below 10-nanometers, because of overheating.
As MIT Tech Review noted:
It's clear that simply cramming more transistors into processors and putting more processors in chips is not going to be tenable much longer. High-end chips already contain about 50 to 60 kilometers of copper wiring and multiple cores.
New materials will be needed if we want to get to the next level with transistors in computing and wearable devices. We are finally reaching that size limit with computing, and science is trying to catch up as fast as possible with a revolutionary answer. In the meantime, it may be worth it to experiment with these possible fixes.