There is no doubt about it. We are living in the age of silicon. One of the most affluent regions in our country is called Silicon Valley. Of course there is good reason for this, silicon has become extremely important in our everyday lives: silicon is all around us: in your cell-phone, computer, at the grocery store, in your car and so on.
So what would happen if something suddenly was able to displace silicon? Well that day might have arrived, a small change in thinking has brought about a material that may be able to challenge silicon, at least in some applications: Carbon nanotubes.
What is it that makes silicon so special anyway? Well silicon happens to be what is called a semiconductor. Due to the specific way in which silicon bonds to other materials, silicon has the special ability to be doped in two different ways, it can become an n-type (with negative charge carriers) or a p-type (positive charge carriers) material. By themselves these two typesare not all that interesting, but when you combine the n-type and the p-type materials in certain ways: you can give rise to either diodes or transistors. Both of these elements are important in modern electronics and they require a pn-junction (between a p-type and an n-type) or a pnp-junction.
Because of this fact, silicon has become very popular, it is reasonably cheap and relatively easy to come by and can be made into either p-type or n-type material. Carbon nanotubes on the other hand do not easily form into n-type materials, a problem researchers have been trying to overcome for some time. The recent breakthrough with carbon nanotubes has been the inclusion of a material that does easily form into an n-type material, namely a mixture of indium, gallium and zinc oxide (IGZO). It turns out that the carbon nanotubes and IGZO mix very well together, allowing for both n-type and p-type materials to form together, much like silicon.
The reason this is important is because this material is even cheaper than silicon. Beyond that carbon nanotubes have much more flexibility in movement than silicon chips, which tend to be stiff. This allows for a variety of potential applications of the carbon nanotube technology that silicon would not be well suited for. For instance some medical applications would benefit from flexible circuitry that could fit to form, rather than having to place several sensors in different places.
This could be an important breakthrough even for our everyday lives. We may soon see circuits in places only science fiction writers have dreamed of. It may have large implications for the silicon industry as well. Who knows? We may someday call it nanotube.