Fengnian Xia, 34
Replacing silicon with graphene
Fengnian Xia has found a way to build a graphene transistor that blocks electrons efficiently when it's off—a step in the direction of graphene-based electronics, which could lead to smaller, faster microprocessors.
Graphene is a promising material for transistors because it conducts electricity better than silicon does. Unfortunately, it's hard to stop the flow of electrons in graphene, and that's an essential function for any transistor. Xia's solution is based on a type of transistor in which an electric field is applied to two layers of graphene. In theory, this arrangement should stop the flow of electrons, but in practice, results were disappointing until Xia put a thin polymer layer on top of the graphene during fabrication: the polymer kept the electrical properties of the layers from being ruined as later layers were added to make other parts of the transistor.
Xia has also demonstrated that graphene can be used in ultrafast photodetectors for optical communications. The ultimate goal, he says, is an integrated system that uses graphene for both communications and computing. That would mean chips could use fiber optics instead of having their inputs and outputs bottlenecked by the relatively sluggish speeds of metal wires. —Katherine Bourzac