Goodbye silicon chips - and hello graphene

Just as in the 1960s, when Japan broke the West's dominance in IT with the transistor radio, South Korea's Samsung today is set to put Silicon Valley in the shade.

The companies working hardest to incorporate graphene into products are thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News
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The West may be about to lose its technology lead over Asia as it lags in the race to use a "miracle" material called graphene.

Reputed to be 200 times stronger than structural steel, graphene is tipped as the replacement for the silicon chips that power today's information technology. According to a Wikipedia description citing research reports, graphene is a one-atom thick sheet of carbon atoms densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice resembling chicken wire.

Its versatility has been compared to plastics since research teams including scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010 for proving that single layers of the material could be isolated. It is an excellent thermal and electronic conductor that can be used to develop semiconductor circuits and computer parts.

This 21st-century technology now looks set to dominate the coming decades in information technology (IT) and will transform the communications industry. But, unlike in previous technology revolutions, the West is not in the lead in this instance.

The companies that are working hardest to incorporate the new material into future products are based thousands of miles away from California's Silicon Valley.

Samsung, for example, is already using graphene to enhance its existing product range while investing heavily in more-advanced future use. The South Korean company is understood to be working on producing graphene-based flexible transparent screens for the consumer electronics market.

Such screens could potentially allow users to roll up a smartphone and carry it in a trouser pocket or even behind the ear like a cigarette.

Samsung is also believed to be developing new types of wearable IT that can be incorporated into high-tech clothing. Advances such as these potentially would put the electronics manufacturer well ahead of rivals such as Apple in the race to capture the high ground of consumer IT.

Rob Enderle, the principal analyst at the Silicon Valley-based research firm Enderle Group, says Samsung's efforts should put it into a "world leadership position likely replacing firms like Sony, Apple and Intel".

However, he adds that such a hypothesis depends on Samsung's executing this strategy effectively, and he notes that the company has often missed significant market opportunities in the past.

But other work now reported to be taking place under wraps in the laboratories of Samsung's Advanced Institute of Technology could have much further-reaching consequences than even the new generation of flexible and transparent computer screens.

Samsung is understood to have made a breakthrough in using graphene to replace silicon.

This involves using the new material for digital processing, a function currently performed by silicon.

Until now, graphene had one overriding problem - it could not switch off an electrical current, making it inefficient. Samsung is understood to have solved the problem, bringing graphene chips a big step closer to reality.

Although a full evolution to graphene-based microchips may still be some years away, it may already be too late for the West to close the widening graphene technology gap with Asia.

"Eventually, this will result in a broad replacement cycle of all tech, much like the move from tubes to silicon did. Right now, however, it is likely this wave will happen in Asia and not the US because they are funded to ride the displacement wave," says Mr Enderle. "But once this technology is validated from phones to mainframes, we'll begin another massive replacement cycle."

However, many analysts have not yet fully factored the graphene revolution into their projections because there is still a big question mark over exactly when companies such as Samsung will switch from silicon.

"They still have a lot of work before they can manufacture components, and then there are the design cycles," says Mr Enderle. "I doubt we will see this much before the end of the decade, even if everything goes amazingly well.

"We'll have a few years early warning though, and we aren't yet within a three-year planning horizon for this."

But even with this time scale, it already looks as if it is impossible for Silicon Valley to follow the example of companies such as Samsung in developing technologies for the new age of graphene.

"The investment isn't there, and with massive debt and an ineffective [US] Congress, this will all have to be driven by the private sector. Asia's investment level, both private and public, is currently well above the US's in areas like this," says Mr Enderle.

The countries making the necessary level of investment in graphene technologies comprise China, Taiwan and South Korea, he says.

This would not be the first time that Asian countries have leapfrogged the United States and Europe in the development of consumer electronics.

In the 1960s, Japan was first to market with the transistor technology that enabled the cheap mass production of radios.

But now the US has even more to lose. For more than 200 years, the West's advantage over "developing" countries in Asia has rested on its technological lead.

However, it now looks as if in the early decades of this century, Asia will come to dominate digital technology.

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