Graphene holds the potential to deliver a new generation of ultrafast electronic devices. Current silicon technology can achieve clock rates – a measure of how fast devices can switch – of several hundred gigahertz (GHz). Graphene could achieve clock rates up to a thousand times faster, propelling electronics into the terahertz (THz) range. But, until now, graphene’s ability to convert oscillating electromagnetic signals into higher frequency modes has been just a theoretical prediction.
Now researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum DresdenRossendorf (HZDR) and University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE), in collaboration with the director of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) Mischa Bonn and other researchers, have shown that graphene can covert high frequency gigahertz signals into the terahertz range [Hafez et al., Nature (2018)].
“We have been able to provide the first direct proof of frequency multiplication from gigahertz to terahertz in a graphene monolayer and to generate electronic signals in the terahertz range with remarkable efficiency,” explain Michael Gensch of HZDR and Dmitry Turchinovich of UDE.
Using the novel superconducting accelerator TELBE terahertz radiation source at HZDR’s ELBE Center for High-Power Radiation Sources, the researchers bombarded chemical vapor deposition (CVD)-produced graphene with electromagnetic pulses in the frequency range 300–680 GHz. As previous theoretical calculations have predicted, the results show that graphene is able to convert these pulses into signals with three, five, or seven times the initial frequency, reaching the terahertz range.
“We were not only able to demonstrate a long-predicted effect in graphene experimentally for the first time, but also to understand it quantitatively at the same time,” points out Turchinovich.
By doping the graphene, the researchers created a high proportion of free electrons or a so-called Fermi liquid. When an external oscillating field excites these free electrons, rather like a normal liquid, they heat up and share their energy with surrounding electrons. The hot electrons form a vapor-like state, just like an evaporating liquid. When the hot Fermi vapor phase cools, it returns to its liquid form extremely quickly. The transition back and forth between these vapor and liquid phases in graphene induces a corresponding change in its conductivity. This very rapid oscillation in conductivity drives the frequency multiplication effect.
“In theory, [this] should allow clock rates up to a thousand times faster than today’s silicon-based electronics,” say Gensch and Turchinovich.
The conversion efficiency of graphene is at least 7–18 orders of magnitude more efficient than other electronic materials, the researchers point out. Since the effect has been demonstrated with mass-produced CVD graphene, they believe there are no real obstacles to overcome other than the engineering challenge of integrating graphene into circuits.
“Our discovery is groundbreaking,” says Bonn. “We have demonstrated that carbon-based electronics can operate extremely efficiently at ultrafast rates. Ultrafast hybrid components made of graphene and traditional semiconductors are also now conceivable.”
Nathalie Vermeulen, professor in the Brussels Photonics group (B-PHOT) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium, agrees that the work is a major breakthrough.
“The nonlinear-optical physics of graphene is an insufficiently understood field, with experimental results often differing from theoretical predictions,” she says. “These new insights, however, shine new light on the nonlinear-optical behavior of graphene in the terahertz regime.”
The researchers’ experimental findings are clearly supported by corresponding theory, Vermeulen adds, which is very convincing.
“It is not often that major advances in fundamental scientific understanding and practical applications go hand in hand, but I believe it is the case here,” she says. “The demonstration of such efficient high-harmonic terahertz generation at room temperature is very powerful and paves the way for concrete application possibilities.”
The advance could extend the functionality of graphene transistors into high-frequency optoelectronic applications and opens up the possibility of similar behavior in other two-dimensional Dirac materials. Marc Dignam of Queen’s University in Canada is also positive about the technological innovations that the demonstration of monolayer graphene’s nonlinear response to terahertz fields could open up.
“The experiments are performed at room temperature in air and, given the relatively short scattering time, it is evident that harmonic generation will occur for relatively moderate field amplitudes, even in samples that are not particularly pristine,” he points out. “This indicates that such harmonic generation could find its way into future devices, once higher-efficiency guiding structures, such as waveguides, are employed.”
He believes that the key to the success of the work is the low-noise, multi-cycle terahertz source (TELBE) used by the researchers. However, Dignam is less convinced by the team’s theoretical explanation of graphene’s nonlinear response. No doubt these exciting results will spur further microscopic theoretical investigations examining carrier dynamics in graphene in more detail.