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When people in the chip industry talk about the thermal problems in computer processors, they get dramatic. In 2001, Pat Gelsinger, then vice president of Intel, noted that if the temperatures produced by the latest chips kept rising on their current path, they would exceed the heat of a nuclear reactor by 2005, and the surface of the sun by 2015. Fortunately, such thermal disaster was averted by slowing down the switching speeds in microprocessors, and by adopting multicore chip designs in which several processors run in parallel.

Now the semiconductor industry has another thermal problem to sort out. As chip components shrink, the copper wiring that connects them must shrink, too. And as these wires get thinner, they heat up tremendously.

A potential solution to this interconnect fever has been found in the form of graphene, an exotic material made from single-atom-thick sheets of carbon that is a superlative conductor of both electrons and heat.

Materials scientists already use copper as a catalyst to grow graphene for other uses. So Alexander Balandin of the University of California, Riverside, and Kostya Novoselov, a physicist at University of Manchester, U.K., who won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for his foundational work with graphene (see “Graphene Wins Nobel Prize”), decided to leave the graphene on the copper to see how it affected the metal’s thermal properties. In a paper published in the journal Nano Letters, they report that a sandwich made of graphene on both sides of a sheet of copper improves the copper’s ability to dissipate heat by 25 percent—a significant figure for chip designers.

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