From sticky tape to Nobel Prize
Although scientists have known about graphene since the 1940s, developers are still finding new uses for the world’s thinnest material. The story of graphene might be well-established, but its practical application only began after its ‘discovery’ in 2004.
During one of their experimental Friday night sessions, two University of Manchester professors successfully isolated graphene by removing flakes from graphite using sticky tape. Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov’s method wasn’t particularly high tech, but it worked. They eventually reduced graphene to a single atom and were awarded the 2010 Noble Prize for their efforts.
Even now, graphene is revolutionising industries including electronics, healthcare and energy. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Cambridge claimed that the material can now be used as a superconductor, which makes things all the more interesting. But why is graphene so important, and what can it do?
What is graphene?
Graphene is an allotrope, or form, of carbon. It’s basically an ultra-thin sheet of atoms that looks like a honeycomb lattice. Graphite consists of layer upon layer of graphene – which is why Geim and Novoselov were able to isolate it using the brilliantly simple method of sticky tape. It’s the densely packed atoms that makes graphene so strong despite being so thin. In fact, it’s 200x stronger than steel, making it the strongest, as well as the thinnest, material in the world. As well as being its strength, it’s also flexible, light and transparent. This makes it perfect for applications within electronics, creating lightweight, flexible, durable devices from mobile phones to wearables. You can see why this might be useful for healthcare in the form of medical sensors, for instance. All that was before the discovery of its superconductivity, which allows electrical currents to travel with zero resistance.
Superconductivity allows graphene to create large magnetic fields like those used in MRI scanners and train line infrastructures. Further possible uses include high-capacity energy storage and energy-efficient power lines. Another intriguing application is in quantum processing for high-speed computing. It’s not certain what type of superconductivity has been found in graphene, but researchers speculate that it could fit the mysterious ‘p-wave’ category. Like graphene itself prior to 2004, ‘p-wave’ superconductivity currently only exists in theory – but the incredible material could hold the answer to this, too. So, graphene’s potential is huge. . . but how might it disrupt traditional sectors?
Owing to its impressive properties, graphene could bring about major changes to a long list of industries. The first applications focused on electronics, putting the flexible conductor to task in solar cells, LED technology and smart devices. In fact, mobile phones with bendy, graphene touch screens already exist. This is good news for companies like Apple, who won’t have to deal with disgruntled customers who have broken their iPhones by sitting on them.
On the topic of personal devices, graphene is a massive enabler for the Internet of Things as it facilitates the creation of tiny, durable electronics that can be inserted into pretty much anything. This is where the healthcare industry will benefit, as medical sensors and trackers will become more efficient in every way. The miracle material has even enhanced water purification technology, contributing to sustainability by providing clean drinking water. As well as this, graphene will disrupt energy by increasing efficiency to the extent that electric cars will be fully charged within seconds. This is fantastic in terms of advancing green energy, but clearly not so great for oil and gas companies. Production and manufacturing will also undergo fundamental changes. In 2015, a team at Imperial College London worked out how to use graphene for 3D printing. By using a stronger and hugely conductive material, the limitations of 3D printing will be a thing of the past. Imagine if you could 3D print powerful computers, or even fully functional cars. . . The possibilities really are endless.
As great as this sounds, there are barriers to wider adoption. Firstly, graphene doesn’t come cheap. However, various University teams are working to simplify the production process with silver nanowires and copper foils, making it far less expensive. Costs aside, researchers have discovered possible health risks, as graphene exhibits varying levels of toxicity. Even though there are obstacles to overcome, the surge of research will certainly lead to solutions. Over £350 million has already been invested in the creation of graphene-focused institutions in Manchester. The urban centre is currently following an initiative called ‘Graphene City’, which brings together researchers and scientists to unlock the material’s wide-ranging potential.
For obvious reasons, graphene has attracted a lot of attention. In the wake of the discovery of its superconductivity, research will only intensify. Graphene’s extensive capabilities have already answered some of the killer questions repeatedly asked by the scientific community, including the provision of clean water. In the future, it will enable mass connectivity, improved electronics, more efficient healthcare and energy solutions. The miracle material may also enable another tentative step towards the development of quantum technology. Of course, applying graphene to so many industries depends on driving down the cost and ensuring that it is completely safe in terms of health risks. This requires financial and academic investment, which is where investors (both individual and corporate) come in. At the moment, it would be safe to say that we have only scratched the surface of what the world’s strongest, lightest and thinnest material can do.
Could your business benefit from graphene-based technology? What other industries could graphene enhance? Are there any other barriers to the adoption of the so-called ‘miracle material’? Share your thoughts and opinions.