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Samsung Electronics has made a major advance in the science of synthesizing graphene, the potential wonder material that is tricky to make. The new technique allows for creating graphene crystals larger than ever before.
Graphene is a simple, flat lattice of carbon atoms that looks a bit like a nano-scale chainlink fence. Scientists have found that it has many desirable characteristics: Not only is it strong and flexible, but it's also extremely conductive, far more so than silicon.
Samsung has high hopes that graphene will lead to flexible electronics, but that's only one possible use of the material.
It occurs naturally in minerals such as graphite, but as a jumble of broken chunks, not as a single huge sheet — and it is single sheets that have the most interesting qualities for electronics and physics. But creating such sheets is no easy task.
Fortunately, researchers at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology and South Korea's Sungkyunkwan University have come up with a truly breakthrough method that's surprisingly simple (for advanced nanomaterial manufacturing, anyway).
A silicon wafer is coated with a thin layer of germanium, which is then dipped in hydrofluoric acid to replace any compounds that might have formed on the surface with a smooth layer of hydrogen. Then this clean surface is exposed to a vapor of graphene bits — which happily align themselves into one big, unbroken, flat crystal. (ExtremeTech has a diagram that helps visualize the process.)
That crystal, enormous by graphene standards, can then be removed easily and the process started again — without any complicated chemical treatment or replacement of rare materials. It's almost like skimming an atom-thick layer of cream off the top of fresh milk.
You won't be getting graphene processors and flexible computers right away, but this is a major step in making this coveted material a real option for engineers and chip makers. The research appeared in the April 4 issue of the journal Science.