The “super material” isn’t ready yet, but it’s going to make future technologies so awesome.
Graphene, the pure carbon material that’s just one atom thick and nearly transparent when laid out in sheets, manages to be roughly 200 times stronger than steel, even though it’s 60,000 times thinner than Saran Wrap.
Graphene is also an excellent conductor of energy, can be synthesized from unique carbon sources — anything from pencil lead to Girl Scout cookies — and it has thousands of possible applications.
How is it possible for one material to have so many ideal characteristics? When you search “graphene” on the web, the most common picture you’ll see is a molecular lattice that resembles a honeycomb, or chicken wire. In reality, this depiction of graphene is perhaps the best way to understand its incredible properties: The structure is remarkably strong and efficient — even self-repairing — but it is essentially two-dimensional. As such, graphene is the most chemically reactive form of carbon, which also makes the material highly conductive and flexible, as well as strong.
Since graphene was finally isolated in 2003, scientific interest in the material has exploded thanks to a “land rush of patents” filed by companies like Apple, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and others around the globe. According to British patent consultancy CambridgeIP, China has filed for more than 2,200 graphene patents — the most of any country — followed by the U.S. with more than 1,700 patents, and South Korea with just under 1,200 patents.
Graphene still has a long way to go before it reaches commercialization, but when you consider what could be made possible by this unusual form of carbon, it’s easy to be excited.
1. Batteries. Probably the biggest issue with most mobile devices is that they constantly need to be recharged. But since 2011, when Northwestern University engineers found graphene anodes are better at holding energy than anodes made of graphite — with faster charging up to 10x — researchers have been hard at work experimenting with graphene compounds that can be scalable, cost-efficient, but most of all, powerful.
Last May, Rice University researchers found that graphene mixed with vanadium oxide (a relatively inexpensive solution) can create battery cathodes that recharge in 20 seconds and retain more than 90% of their capacity, even after 1,000 cycles of use.
2. Computer circuits. Last year, MIT and Harvard engineers successfully used DNA templates to pattern graphene into nanoscale structures that could eventually be fashioned into electronic circuits, although the researchers still need to improve the overall precision of the process before it can replace silicon in computer chips.
The methodologies are still experimental and expensive, but the potential for graphene-based electronics, considering the upsides of the material, is simply too good to ignore.
3. Smartphones. Between batteries and computer chips, it’s possible graphene will be the chief material used to compose the smartphones of the future.
It could even be used for unbreakable smartphones, where users can soon twist and bend their phones at will since graphene can be used to create a rigid metal housing but also allow for a flexibility, even in the touch-screen display.
4. Energy cells. Graphene could help us harness energy like never before. Batteries for phones and smartwatches are one thing, but solar and electric power could stand to benefit tremendously from the material, as well.
Last year, the Michigan Technological University found graphene could power solar cells by replacing platinum, which is a key ingredient in solar cells but a highly expensive one at $US1,500 an ounce. Thanks to its molecular structure, graphene has the conductivity and catalytic activity needed to harness and convert the energy of the sun without losing any efficiency of its own.
5. Living tissue applications. A March 2012 issue of Nature predicted graphene could be used to create bionic implants, but more recently, the University of Manchester’s Aravind Vijaraghavan said graphene could interact with one’s biological systems — or “talk with one’s cells,” as he put it — which could eventually take the Internet of Things to new heights. Graphene isn’t the material doing the actual talking; the graphene simply lies beneath the synthetic phospholipid layers that do all the work, but does showcase the versatility of graphene and its ability to play nice with our own biological systems.
Besides consumer electronics, the range of applications for graphene is practically endless. Since graphene’s properties are only exploited when the material is combined with other elements like gases, metals, and other sources of carbon, researchers are experimenting with graphene to create antennas, saltwater filters, windows, paint, aeroplane wings, tennis rackets, DNA-sequencing devices, tires, ink, and so much more.
A Long Way To Go
Samsung, which owns roughly a quarter of South Korea’s graphene patents, is dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into research for the material.
In April, Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), in conjunction with a local university’s applied sciences department, announced a new method to produce graphene in large quantities without the material losing any of the electric or mechanical properties that make it unique.
“This is one of the most significant breakthroughs in graphene research in history,” the SAIT Lab researchers said in a statement. “We expect this discovery to accelerate the commercialization of graphene, which could unlock the next era of consumer electronic technology.”
With so many upsides to graphene, it’s easy to see why the technology world is so excited about the material’s potential. But just because it can do things better at silicon doesn’t mean companies are willing to overhaul their manufacturing processes just yet.
Though Samsung’s recent development is promising, there is still not a foolproof way of mass producing graphene with machines, which means there’s no way to make money from it.
Nobel laureate Sir Konstantin Novoselov pointed out in his October 2012 paper, “A Roadmap for Graphene,” that it will take a while for graphene to supplant more established materials since their applications will need to justify the hefty cost of the material, as well as the “cost and disruption of changing existing industrial processes.”
“The entire industry is built on silicon,” Vijayaraghavan told The Telegraph. “Not because other materials can’t do it better, but because silicon does it well enough for the price you are willing to pay. Companies like Intel have spent billions of pounds on facilities optimised for silicon. So if you want them to switch to graphene, you are going to have to drag them kicking and screaming. They are not going to give up silicon easily.”
It may take years or decades for graphene to fully manifest itself in industrial manufacturing, but until it becomes cheap enough to entice companies to use the material at a large scale, all we can do is daydream about the potential of this ultra-strong, ultra-thin super material and its effects on our technological lives.