The experiment that led to its discovery in 2004 consisted of nothing more than a pencil and some scotch tape, but scientists claim this new wonder material will one day revolutionize technology and change the way we live.
The excitement is easy to understand. Graphene is a million times thinner than a single strand of human hair, and a thousand times more conductive than silicon. Perhaps even more bewildering, the two-dimensional honeycomb structure of its atoms makes this transparent, easily bendable material 300 times tougher than steel.
While attempts to manufacture large amounts of graphene have so far been unsuccessful, many claim it is only a matter of time before the material is produced on an industrial scale. Research into graphene’s unique properties has been intense, with scientists and corporations in every part of the world already claiming patents for various industrial and commercial applications.
But just what should we expect from this miracle material in the future?
Airplanes, antennas and high-speed electronics
The possibilities are as varied as they are mind-boggling. Graphene-plastic composites could one day replace metal in aircraft and cars, making them lighter and more fuel efficient. At the same time, graphene wireless antennas will permit near instantaneous terabit downloads, allowing you to grab and transfer hundreds of high-definition movies onto your phone within a few seconds. The material’s two-dimensional structure could also lead to a fabricating process that produces diodes and transistors based on single-layered architecture. This could mean two-dimensional high-speed electronics for next generation computers, and a whole new range of ultra-sensitive chemical sensors, among others.
“So much of the fundamental interest in graphene is coming from the fact that there is no material like it,” said Sankar Das Sarma of the University of Maryland, who led the effort to calculate the vacuum polarization of graphene. “With graphene comes the prospect of an enabling technology that could transform civilization.”
Solar panels, LCD screens and batteries
Because it conducts electricity better than any other material available today, manufacturers are likely to use graphene for a wide range of consumer electronics and communications devices — from flatter LCD screens to ultra-thin mobile devices and IP phones. “There very first application where graphene is going to be used is probably as a replacement for (the relatively inexpensive) metal indium selenide in solar panels,” Tom Palacios, head of MIT’s graphene research department, told CNN recently. “After that, I think we will see a new array of communication devices that don’t just use graphene but which also use other two-dimensional materials.”
Palacios believes the miracle material will be used for phones and LCD screens that are embedded into walls and window panes, perhaps even integrated into paper and clothing. “To do this, we need very thin materials that are also transparent and graphene could be that material,” he said.
This early, some analysts claim graphene-based energy storage devices will soon replace conventional batteries in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. The energy research company, Nanotek Instruments, for example, is now in the process of commercializing graphene-based electrode materials for a new generation of supercapacitors. Nanotek’s electrode technology is said to offer the energy density of a modern battery, but is fully recharged in under two minutes.
A new era in technology
Throughout history, our command over the materials around us has determined the extent of our technology — shaping not only the way we work, but also the character of human civilization. Perhaps this is why we have always looked back at history with an eye for the materials that have influenced technological progress. Anthropologists and archeologists, for instance, divide human pre-history into periods named after tool-making materials: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age.
We may be at the threshold of yet another era today. “I am completely convinced graphene is going to end up changing our lives,” Palacios asserts. “Exactly how, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can know for sure but there is nothing thinner, stronger or more suitable to conduct electricity and that has to be useful for many important things.”