The wonder material graphene

Two Russian-émigré scientists at the University of Manchester, Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, were playing about with flakes of carbon graphite in an attempt to investigate its electrical properties when they decided to see if they could make thinner flakes with the help of sticky Scotch tape.

The creation of graphene, a wonder material promises to transform the future.

When the two scientists won their joint Nobel prize in physics in 2010 for their ground-breaking experiments, the Nobel committee made a point of citing the “playfulness” that was one of the hallmarks of the way they have worked together.

The original idea of working with graphite was to see if it could be used as a transistor, the fundamental switching device at the heart of computing.

Graphene, a The creation of graphene, a wonder material that promises to transform the future, is a superlative material. It is the thinnest and strongest substance known to science – about 100 times stronger than steel by weight. A square metre of graphene, a thousand times thinner than paper, made into a hammock would be strong enough to cradle a 4kg cat, but weigh no more than one of its whiskers. It is a good conductor of electricity, is stretchable and yet is almost transparent. It conducts heat better than any other known substance. It acts as a barrier to the smallest atom of gas – helium – and yet allows water vapour to pass through.

“And then on top of that there are other excitements such as the very unusual electronic properties that we’ve never come across before. Then there are the unusual optical properties, chemical properties and many more.

“We have a really unique opportunity here in that quite a few unusual properties are combined in one material; the strongest, the most flexible, the most stretchable, the most conductive, optically transparent and something which is a good gas barrier. So you can invent quite a few new applications that were not possible before,” he adds.

The potential uses for graphene appear almost limitless. They range from new types of flexible electronics that could be worn on clothes or folded up into a pocket, to a new generation of very small computers, hyper-efficient solar panels and super-fast mobile phones. Yet at the heart of graphene is a honeycomb structure of carbon atoms – described as “atomic chickenwire”. Carbon is the basic element of life, which means that graphene could be the focus of a new industrial revolution based on electronic components that are biodegradable and sustainable. If there was ever a building material for a new, green economy, graphene could be it. As a result, the UK Government has actively supported a new National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester, which will be completed by 2015 at the cost of £61m, of which £38m is coming from government research councils.

Wonder stuff: uses for graphene

Drinking water

Graphene could be used to desalinate seawater to make it drinkable. Scientists believe that passing seawater through graphene’s tiny pores, the crystal lattice could let water molecules through, while blocking out the atoms that make salt. Using a graphene filter, Lockheed hopes to transform salt water into drinking water by the end of the year.

Smartphones

Being both transparent and conductive, graphene could be perfect for the new generation of smartphones. Samsung are among the consumer electronics companies that are developing touchscreen interfaces.

Computers

It is hoped that graphene can replace silicon chips. Electronics firms are testing graphene in numerous electrical devices. IBM has already piloted computers that use the material to achieve the record-setting speed of 100GHz.

Satellites, planes and cars

Graphene has properties that provide light but super-strong composite materials for next-generation satellites, planes and cars. The new form of carbon could further reduce aircraft weight, subsequently cutting the burning of fuel and dumping of carbon in the atmosphere.

Building materials

Scientists believe that graphene’s flexible nature may prove the ideal building material, with the trick being to incorporate it into a matrix like a polymer or a metal, where the load is borne by the graphene layer.

Rust-free cars

Graphene repels water and is highly conductive. This combination keeps steel from coming into contact with water and delays the electrochemical reactions that oxidize iron. New York scientists designed a polymer coating containing this form of carbon and found that it protected steel from rusting for up to a month.

Military equipment

Graphene foam can pick up small concentrations of the nitrates and ammonia found in explosives. A postage-size sensor developed in the US could soon be mandatory for bomb squads. Australian researchers found adding an equal amount of graphene and carbon nanotubes to a polymer produced a super-strong fibre that could be spun into fabric used to make bulletproof vests.

Nuclear clean-up

Graphene oxide can absorb radioactive waste. Researchers at Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University found that tiny bits of graphene oxide bind to radioactive contaminants, transforming them into large extractable clumps. This could help after nuclear accidents like the Fukushima disaster.

Source: The Independent