The world’s smallest light bulb is an atom thick and made of graphene

A team of researchers from Columbia, Seoul National University and Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science have created the world’s smallest light bulb. And it’s the smallest by quite a long way: the layer of graphene is the thickness of an atom, but despite its size, the light it generates is visible to the naked eye.

To accomplish this, the graphene was turned into a filament, similar to the wire in your standard light bulb. When electricity is pushed through, the ‘bulb’ hits a temperature of around 2,500˚C, enough for the light to be visible to the human eye, even though it’s on a nano-scale.

It achieves this without damaging the silicon chip on which it is mounted – a huge step forward. All of this is possible thanks to the unique qualities of graphene: when its temperature rises, it conducts heat less effectively, ensuring that the 2,500-degree core is safely confined away from the chip where it could do damage.

We’ve created what is essentially the world’s thinnest light bulb. This new type of ‘broadband’ light emitter can be integrated into chips and will pave the way towards the realisation of atomically thin, flexible and transparent displays, and graphene-based on-chip optical communications,” explained James Hone, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University.

We’re just starting to dream about other uses for these structures – for example, as micro-hotplates that can be heated to thousands of degrees in a fraction of second to study high-temperature chemical reactions or catalysis,” he added.

Being able to integrate a light source into computer chips, at the very least, is essential for the development of optical computers, which should massively outperform current chips. More innovative uses are expected to follow.

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