Every age in the history of human civilisation has a signature material, from the Stone Age, to the Bronze and Iron Ages. We might even call today’s information-driven society the Silicon Age.
Since the 1960s, silicon nanostructures, the building-blocks of microchips, have supercharged the development of electronics, communications, manufacturing, medicine, and more.
How small are these nanostructures? Very, very small – you could fit at least 3,000 silicon transistors onto the tip of a human hair. But there is a limit: below about 5 nanometres (5 millionths of a millimetre), it is hard to improve the performance of silicon devices any further.
So if we are about to exhaust the potential of silicon nanomaterials, what will be our next signature material? That’s where “atomaterials” come in.

What are atomaterials?

“Atomaterials” is short for “atomic materials”, so called because their properties depend on the precise configuration of their atoms. It is a new but rapidly developing field.
One example is graphene, which is made of carbon atoms. Unlike diamond, in which the carbon atoms form a rigid three-dimensional structure, graphene is made of single layer of carbon atoms, bonded together in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice.
Diamond’s rigid structure is the reason for its celebrated hardness and longevity, making it the perfect material for high-end drill bits and expensive jewellery. In contrast, the two-dimensional form of carbon atoms in graphene allows electron travelling frictionless at a high speed giving ultrahigh conductivity and the outstanding in plane mechanical strength. Thus, graphene has broad applications in medicines, electronics, energy storage, light processing, and water filtration.
Using lasers, we can fashion these atomic structures into miniaturised devices with exceptional performance.

Image Credit:  Swinburne

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