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A Guide To Graphene: The Versatile Wonder Material With Vast Capabilities

Unless you’ve been living under a sheet of it, you may have noticed the world buzzing about the recently-dubbed “wonder material” graphene: the lightest and strongest material known to man.

Here’s what you should know about the remarkable material and the potential of its commercial use in the future.

What is graphene?

An atom-thick crystalline layer of carbon, graphene is the ultimate in strength and pliability. As the hardest, thinnest material known to exist (stronger than steel; thinner than paper), the material is extremely lightweight yet durable, and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity to boot.

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Photo courtesy of Duncan Hull via Flickr.

All these elements together add up to a material harnessing amazing potential for the electronics industry: think flexible devices, supercharging quantum computers, smart clothing, and body implants.

If this doesn’t already seem too good to be true, consider that the material is inexpensive to make, and even better, water resistant – capable of making electronic devices smaller; cheaper; impervious to swimming pools.

A quick discovery timeline

Though graphene was studied in theory as early as 1947 and named in 1987, it wasn’t patented and produced until the 21st century:

2002: Graphene production process was patented for the first time as “Nano-scaled graphene plates” by a company called Nanotek Instruments (now Angstron Materials).

This first patent is often overlooked, as the pioneering scientists that extracted it two years later were unfamiliar with the patent or the current state of the industry, and academicians (still!) generally unfamiliar with patent holder Dr. Bor Jang.

2003-2004: Graphene was extracted/officially “discovered” by Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov when they took a block of graphite and extracted an ultra-thin layer using sticky tape, a process which was refined to produce today’s atom-thick graphene.

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Photo courtesy of Duncan Hull via Flickr.

Geim’s highly-cited paper was published in 2004, announcing the findings of their achievement.

2010: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery and research on the astounding properties and production of graphene.

2014: Samsung developed a breakthrough technique that could make graphene a commercially usable product.

The process grows single-crystal graphene on reusable silicon wafers, creating high-quality graphene suitable for mass production, which Samsung hopes to use for flexible displays and wearables.

What it can be used for

There is much that that the material is capable of that could completely disrupt how electronic devices are built and used:

  • Body implants: Graphene is potentially integratable with biological systems; estimated for use in biological engineering as soon as 2030.

  • Flexible screens: Ideal use for touchscreens, liquid crystal displays, and OLEDs; graphene could feasibly create “e-paper” and other flexible devices.

  • Ultrafiltration: Graphene is impervious to liquid and gas; could be used for ultrafast and ultraprecise water filtration and desalination systems.

  • Lighter, faster airplanes: Graphene is expected to ultimately replace steel, its lightness and strength ideal for airplanes and armor.

  • Solar power: Graphene’s low level of light absorption along with high electron mobility means it’s able to generate more electricity than silicon at a lower price and on all wavelengths, with flexible use for clothing, mobile phones, or window curtains.

  • Super storage:  Scientists are working on incorporating graphene into batteries and capacitors to offer higher storage capacity and better charge longevity, with charge speeds as fast as 30 seconds.

  • Quantum computers: Graphene would help computers operate on an atomic scale; quantum computing of which is currently being researched at MIT.

  • Impenetrable condoms: The National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester has been awarded a $100,000 grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a thinner, more comfortable and effective method of STD prevention and birth control.

All in all, it’s safe to say that there are many doors this material might open in the future. Perhaps one will be the door through which we’ll be ushered out of the age of plastics, and into a shining new age of – well, I think you can guess at this point.

Jennifer Markert