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Circuit Breaker

Tomorrow’s speakers could be made from ultrathin graphene sheets

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Photo: David Horsell / University of Exeter

Graphene has been hailed as a magical material for years, promising revolutions in everything from flexible phones to ultrathin transistors to night vision contact lenses, to name a few. Now, you can add speakers to that list. New research from the University of Exeter uses graphene to create a tiny chip that combines a speaker, amplifier, and equalizer.

Instead of using a physically vibrating coil or membrane to push air and produce sound as in traditional speakers, the new graphene method involves rapidly heating and cooling the graphene sheet with an electric current, which then causes the nearby air to expand and contract and create sound. The lack of mechanical components to physically move the air means that the graphene system can be dramatically thinner and smaller than a conventional speaker.

While it’s obviously early days when it comes to graphene speakers, there’s some intriguing possibilities for the technology: the non-mechanical nature of the system could one day result in thinner speakers than ever before, while nearly transparent atomically thin sheets of graphene could one day be integrated into phone screens that also serve as full speakers. It’s also not the first time we’ve seen research hoping to use graphene in audio applications — a similar paper proposed the use of the material in developing smaller headphones back in 2013.

For now, the research team is exploring potential uses of the graphene technology in improving things like ultrasound imaging and signal combination, which certainly aren’t quite as cool as an ultra-high-quality speaker that’s as thick as a sheet of paper, but all tech has to start somewhere.