Graphene is a single, flat sheet of carbon arranged in a honeycombed lattice. It has many unique electronic and mechanical properties, such as extremely high carrier mobility – which means that it can function as both an interconnect and high-mobility channel material in ultrafast transistors. The material can also absorb light over a range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum from the visible to mid-infrared and is highly transparent to light. The fact that it is mechanically flexible while being incredibly strong is good news too.

The researchers, led by Deji Akinwande and Rodney Ruoff, made their graphene field-effect transistors (GFETs) directly atop patterned dielectrics on plastic sheets using conventional microelectronic lithography. The devices have a novel structure, explains Akinwande, in which multi-finger metal gate electrodes are embedded in the plastic sheet. They are also made using graphene that has been grown by chemical vapour deposition (CVD), which is now as good as pristine graphene flakes obtained by exfoliation (the famous “sticky-tape” method).

Record properties

The innovative technique to make the devices means that graphene can easily be integrated and fabricated on plastic sheets that have been pre-patterned with metal gates. This produces transistors in which charge carriers can move extremely fast and in which electrons and holes move in the same way. The devices are also extremely compliant and can accommodate mechanical strains of up to 9% and can be bent and unbent over 20 continuous cycles – a record number for flexible GFETs.

“Overall, our transistors feature record circuit performance, the largest mechanical bending and the highest extrinsic cut-off frequencies (of about 2.23 GHz) to date for any graphene flexible nanoelectronic device,” Akinwande told nanotechweb.org. “What is more, the devices are liquid-resistant thanks to the fact that the surface of graphene is passivated with silicon nitride and the plastic substrate is self-passivated. In short, we found that they could be accidentally dropped into everyday liquids, like milk, tea or coffee, and can even survive being run over by a moving vehicle – all without suffering damage to their outstanding properties.”

Smart applications

The extremely flexible, high-performance devices could be ideal for smart, conformal, advanced electronics that could offer performance capabilities beyond today’s silicon-based technology while also being cheaper, lighter, more environmentally friendly and with arbitrary form factors, he adds. “Potential applications include flexible smartphones, displays, fabric and even smart walls.”

The team, which is presenting its work this week at the IEDM conference in San Francisco, is now busy trying to make flexible wireless radios and mobile systems using the new GFETs at GHz frequencies. “From a basic research point of view, we are also looking into heat management in these devices on flexible plastic substrates, which is a major issue for transistors operating at high speeds and current densities,” added Akinwande.