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October 21st, 2010
One of the most exciting new ideas in solid state physics is that graphene can act as a laboratory for studying exotic relativistic physics. It turns out that the electronic properties of graphene can be tuned so that the movement of electrons and holes through the structure at speeds of 10^6 m/s is mathematically equivalent to the behaviour of electrons travelling in a vacuum close to the speed of light.
In the language of physics, their behaviour is governed not by the conventional Schrodinger equation that ordinary electrons obey, but by the massless Dirac equation than describes relativistic physics. These equations take no account of mass (as the name implies)--so the electrons and holes behave as if they have no mass.
That's important because, in the past, the relativistic behaviour of electrons was only accessible to physicists with a high energy particle accelerator in their yard. Now any laboratory equipped with carbon, electricity and wires can do it.
This has led to massive interest: one idea is that a new generation of graphene-based electronic devices will be able to exploit the effects possible in relativistic physics rather than using plain old vanilla effects (although exactly how isn't yet clear).
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