Graphene is going to be the Next Big Thing in technology. Made from carbon, and only one atom thick—how is that even possible?—it is roughly 207 times stronger than steel by weight. Graphene exhibits unique electronic, optical, and thermal properties that make it a perfect material for circuitry, sensors, and optics today’s advanced electronic communications devices and information systems. Its full potential is only now starting to be realized.
Until recently, however, there was no way to control graphene’s properties on a large scale. Graphene was graphene, and no technology existed that could effectively alter its form. Thanks to new research by those crafty Spaniards at AIMEN (which, anagrammed out and roughly translated from Spanish, means Northwest Metallurgical Research Association), a solution has been found.
Picosecond Laser Blasts are Key (Obvs)
Using so-called “ultrafast lasers” as a processing tool, AIMEN researchers were able to alter graphene’s properties in finely defined areas, producing distinct chemical changes in the material. Not sure what makes a laser “ultrafast”, exactly; as they are, essentially, beams of light, how could any laser be “faster” than another? Light being the fastest thing ever and all.
The AIMEN team used highly controlled laser pulses, lasting only a few picoseconds, to pattern graphene lattice, adding external, non-carbon molecules and binding compounds that give the material additional beneficial characteristics. By spot focusing their ultrafast laser on an area of less than one square micron, researchers were able to direct-wire devices onto graphene, creating functional, high efficiency nano-devices.
A picosecond, for the record, is one one-trillionth of a second; a micron is one one-millionth of a meter (or 1/25,400th of an inch). One wonders how the heck such things are measured.
Is There Anything Lasers CAN’T Do?
Prior to AIMEN team’s discovery, the most common application for lasers in the manufacturing sphere was good ol’ laser cutting—cutting high precision parts out of metal, plastic, or other materials. Despite using science-fiction’s most prominent weapon as its key tool, it’s a pretty straightforward process.
In much the same way that “traditional” laser cutting is used to produce patterned parts (i.e., high volumes of parts that all match) quickly and efficiently, the new ultrafast laser processing procedure can be used for the large-scale, high-speed patterning of graphene.