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Miracle mono-molecule material could quench hot chips

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Boffins working in California say that in five years' time chips and elctronics may be designed with special heat-extracting layers composed of an unusual form of carbon, so reducing the hot-thighs syndrome becoming more and more prevalent among modern laptop users.

The material in question is graphene, a sheet of carbon just one atom thick which cannot theoretically be manufactured. In its true, perfect form - a two-dimensional molecule potentially unlimited in size - it pretty much can't be.

However, less colossal graphene molecules are a major constituent of more ordinary forms of carbon such as graphite; and lately, something a bit more like the miracle mono-molecule sheet of theory has been available, in the form of Few Layer Graphene, FLG. Many boffins worldwide consider that graphene could do amazing things, particularly in the world of integrated circuitry, but as yet they have been stumped by the fact that it's difficult to make in big enough sheets.

Theoretical perfect graphene, according to the calculations of Professor Alexander Balandin of the University of California at Riverside, would be an excellent conductor of heat even though it is so very thin. This would be a useful thing if graphene sheets could be built into silicon chips, or replace parts of them, as getting the heat out of silicon-based electronics is becoming a major issue.

Theoretical perfect graphene isn't on offer. But, according to Balandin and his crew, FLG is potentially an excellent option for keeping the chips of tomorrow chilled - even, perhaps, the mooted three-dimensional architectures. These would offer more components (hence more power) packed closer together (for more speed), but their heat management problems would obviously make today's look like nothing. But FLG components, connections or heat pipes might, according to the Californian boffins, make light work of these snags.

"Graphene is one of the hottest materials right now," says Balandin. "Everyone is talking about it."

The prof and his colleagues have a new paper out in Nature Materials, here (free abstract, subscription required for the whole thing).

Balandin considers that FLG could be in use for packaging chips in the next few years: in five years it might be forming an integral part of new chips alongside silicon. For the true miracle-chips, carved from a single mighty molecular sheet, there'll be a somewhat longer wait. ®

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