Flexible computer screens, long-living batteries, and lightening fast microcomputers are just a few examples of the countless potential applications of graphene — one of the the world’s thinnest yet strongest materials ever synthesized.
Despite graphene’s promise, though, no one has exactly figured out what to do with it. But scientists sure are trying.
Andre Geim, a physics professor at the University of Manchester, discovered graphene in the early 2000s. The media touted it as a “wonder material” that could “change the world,” according to a story about graphene in The New Yorker.
Graphene is essentially made by shaving graphite — a crystalline structure composed of many layers of carbon atoms — until only one atom-thick layer remains.
This simple sheet lattice of carbon atoms has incredible heat and energy conducting properties, giving it the potential to revolutionise everything from medicine to electrical engineering and physics. Its applications are seemingly endless.
Tomas Palacios, a scientist in charge of the Center for Graphene Devices and 2D systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is “perhaps the most expansive thinker about the material’s potential,” according to The New Yorker. Instead of using the supermaterial to improve upon current technologies, though, he’s looking instead to harness graphene to create something completely new.
One of Palacios’ groundbreaking ideas involves coffee cups, shoes, and windows. Palacios believes that graphene could turn everyday objects like these into an endless array of devices that can easily compile and transmit information, he told The New Yorker.
“Basically, everything around us will be able to convert itself into a display on demand,” he said. Think the Internet of Things on steroids.
To make this possible Palacios’ lab is designing a new 3-D printer that uses graphene as its ink — but getting it to work is the tricky part. They need to figure out how to create graphene in a liquid form so that they can use it as ink in a printer to produce on demand graphene-based objects, or to paint graphene directly on to the surface of an object. As of late 2014, the printer only knew how to spit out plastic, according to the The New Yorker.
Palacios’ most impressive project yet is the creation of “graphene origami,” a self-folding graphene sheet that can mimic living structures, such as the curves, wrinkles, and folds of the inner components of human cells, or it can act as “smart dust,” which he thinks could be used to collect data about pollution or scan for viruses and sent real-time data back to your cell phone.
As with any new materials, the road to developing graphene for commercial use has been taking a long time. Joshua Goldberger, a chemist at The Ohio State University, told Wired that these types of graphene technologies could take 10 to 20 years before they become available.
But still, graphene has been called the “granddaddy of the modern boom in materials science,” and for good reason. If successfully incorporated into future technologies, it has the potential of being one of the biggest disruptive innovations ever made.
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