Overheating in laptops and electronic gadgets isn't just an annoyance to the end user — it's a major technological hurdle that puts a hard limit to the speed and energy efficiency of electronics. In a paper recently published in the journal Nature Materials, a team of scientists from the University of California found that multiple layers of graphene show strong heat conducting properties that can be harnessed in removing dissipated heat from electronic devices.

Heating in electronic components is inevitable and, as processing speeds grow exponentially, a central problem that needs to be dealt with using constantly improving technology. While heat-dissipating fans and the increasingly popular water cooling systems may do the job for now, more portable (and/or quieter) solutions are needed.

Silicon, an invaluable material for its unique electronic properties, doesn't however have good thermal properties, particularly at the nanometer scale. A new, promising approach to controlling the heat problem is therefore to incorporate materials with superior thermal properties into silicon computer chips, to make the heat transfer swifter and more efficient.

Having previously shown that graphene — a two-dimensional layer of carbon atoms packed in a honeycomb structure — behaves as a strong heat conductor, the group tested a solution in which multiple sheets of graphene embedded within silicon chips can dramatically improve the thermal characteristics, meaning lower temperatures and a concrete possibility for chip manufacturers to reach higher processing speeds with relative ease.

In their paper, the researchers also explained how the ability of a material to conduct heat evolves when transitioning from conventional three-dimensional bulk materials to two-dimensional atomically-thin films, such as with graphene.

At this point there is no reliable way to synthesize large quantities of graphene of the quality needed for the team's findings to be immediately applied to our electronics, even though some estimate that this could happen in just one or two years. Once scientists are able to produce graphene on a large scale, the material could also find applications in ultra-fast transistors for radio frequency communications, because of their low signal distortion.