A joke targeted at graphene research seems driven more by envy than providing a check on its excesses
Last month, the venerable American Chemical Society (ACS) in its journal ACS Nano decided to take a step off the path of its mandate to promote scientific discovery and thought it might be fun to ridicule it. ("Will Any Crap We Put into Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect?" by Lu Wang, Zdenek Sofer and Martin Pumera*)
Of course, the target of the ridicule was graphene, which over the last decade has been taking much of the research funding targeted for advanced materials. Let’s say it was an easy target to malign, especially for those who are not invested in graphene’s development.
The ridicule was formulated in this way: a lot of research papers are published on how to dope graphene (add impurities to it), so what if we published a paper on someone doping graphene with chicken guano. Hysterical, right?
There’s just one problem with this joke, one of the cornerstones of semiconducting engineering for at least the last half-century has been doping. Doping is used to enhance, or just tweak, the conductivity of semiconductors by intentionally introducing impurities into them.
To forego a long explanation of solid-state physics and band gaps, suffice it to say that digital electronics (the kind of electronics that enables you to read this post) depends on doping of electronic materials to function.
In the decade-and-a-half since graphene was first isolated, researchers have been mesmerized by its extraordinary properties and by logical extension its enormous potential in electronics. However, graphene in its pure state is not a semiconductor, but rather a conductor. In order for it to be useful in electronic applications, especially digital electronics, it needs to behave as a semiconductor: possessing the capability of starting and stopping the flow of electrons through it thereby creating the on/off states for binary digital logic.
Of course, researchers have spent countless hours researching on how to best exploit graphene for electronics—attracted to its extraordinary electronic properties—and have often been funded handsomely to do so. This funding—which has come at the expense of other lines of research (making graphene research an easy target for envy)—has been so strong because of the hope that it would lead to some breakthrough that would stave off the end of Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law argued back in 1965 that the number of transistors placed in an integrated circuit (IC) or chip doubles approximately every two years. It turns out graphene hasn’t saved Moore’s Law as of yet. And Moore’s Law may have seen its road come to a dead end two years ago when chip makers just threw up their hands at a 7-nm node and said, “No more.”
This means for the last decade there has been a pressing need and a fervent hope that graphene could come to the rescue of complimentary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) digital electronics. To meet this need and interest, graphene research had to devote much of its time to doping of the material.
It is a worthy argument to contest how effective this has all been in bringing graphene closer as a viable alternative in a post-CMOS world. However, it would be silly to argue that such research should never have been undertaken, or even taken on so aggressively and broadly. There was a need and the market pulled for such a use for the material. This was not an idle or wasted effort as the ACS Nano article insinuates.
The gist of the ACS Nano article in the form of a joke was to suggest that all doping of graphene research is nonsense because so much of it is performed and published. “Look how funny it would be to dope graphene with chicken droppings. That will really stick their noses in it.” While this may be funny to some, it’s highly detrimental to the spirit and inspiration for scientific inquiry.
And it certainly doesn’t do justice to the many innovative ways that graphene and a whole class of 2D materials are being applied to solve existing and new engineering challenges.