Graphene-based nano-antennas may enable networks of tiny machines

Networks of nanometer-scale machines offer exciting potential applications in medicine, industry, environmental protection and defense, but until now there's been one very small problem: the limited capability of nanoscale antennas fabricated from traditional metallic components.
With antennas made from conventional materials like copper, communication between low-power nanomachines would be virtually impossible. But by taking advantage of the unique electronic properties of the material known as graphene, researchers now believe they're on track to connect devices powered by small amounts of scavenged energy.
Based on a honeycomb network of carbon atoms, graphene could generate a type of electronic surface wave that would allow antennas just one micron long and 10 to 11 nanometers wide to do the work of much larger antennas. While operating graphene nano-antennas have yet to be demonstrated, the researchers say their modeling and simulations show that nano-networks using the new approach are feasible with the alternative material.
"We are exploiting the peculiar propagation of electrons in graphene to make a very small antenna that can radiate at much lower frequencies than classical metallic antennas of the same size," said Ian Akyildiz, a Ken Byers Chair professor in Telecommunications in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We believe that this is just the beginning of a new networking and communications paradigm based on the use of graphene."
Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the research is scheduled to be reported in the journal IEEE Journal of Selected Areas in Communications (IEEE JSAC). In addition to the nanoscale antennas, the researchers are also working on graphene-based nanoscale transceivers and the transmission protocols that would be necessary for communication between nanomachines.
The communications challenge is that at the micron scale, metallic antennas would have to operate at frequencies of hundreds of terahertz. While those frequencies might offer advantages in communication speed, their range would be limited by propagation losses to just a few micrometers. And they'd require lots of power – more power than nanomachines are likely to have.
Akyildiz has studied nanonetworks since the late 1990s, and had concluded that traditional electromagnetic communication between these machines might not be possible. But then he and his Ph.D. student, Josep Jornet – who graduated in August 2013 and is now an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo – began reading about the amazing properties of graphene. They were especially interested in how electrons behave in single-layer sheets of the material.
"When electrons in graphene are excited by an incoming electromagnetic wave, for instance, they start moving back and forth," explained Akyildiz. "Because of the unique properties of the graphene, this global oscillation of electrical charge results in a confined electromagnetic wave on top of the graphene layer."
Known technically as a surface plasmon polariton (SPP) wave, the effect will allow the nano-antennas to operate at the low end of the terahertz frequency range, between 0.1 and 10 terahertz – instead of at 150 terahertz required by traditional copper antennas at nanoscale sizes. For transmitting, the SPP waves can be created by injecting electrons into the dielectric layer beneath the graphene sheet.
Materials such as gold, silver and other noble metals also can support the propagation of SPP waves, but only at much higher frequencies than graphene. Conventional materials such as copper don't support the waves.