Graphene may provide technological solutions to a host of issues including the climate crisis. It is as hard as diamond, in fact, it is two hundred times stronger than steel, yet lighter than a feather, making it both ultra-light and durable. This, inexpensive tough new material is also as flexible as rubber and it can heal itself when it is damaged.
As it is only one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest known material, a million times thinner than a human hair and hundreds of thousands of times thinner than a sheet of paper. To put this in context, three million sheets of graphene would be only one millimeter high. A very small amount of this revolutionary material is required to cover a huge area (one gram could cover an entire football field). It weighs only 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimeter and the cost is negligible at a few hundred dollars per kilo.
Its strength comes from its crystalline arrangement, where carbon atoms are perfectly distributed in a hexagonal honeycomb formation only 0.3 nanometres thick, with just 0.1 nanometres between each atom. This creates a seemingly impregnable sea of electrons on the surface that do not interact with each other.
Graphene is a graphite derivative that was first discovered in 2004 at the UK's University of Manchester by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, a discovery which earned them the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Graphene has a host of applications ranging from green superconductors to emissions reduction. Perhaps the most promising application is related to its potential for energy.
Graphene is the world’s most efficient conductor of electricity (1000 times better than copper) so it will find its way into a range of electronics including wearable devices. Because its transparent (it only absorbs 2 percent of light), it is being considered for use in applications like electronic touch screens. It could also be used to manufacture virtually unbreakable cell phones and laptop computers.
Its conductive properties make Graphene much better than silicon technology in circuit boards. Graphene can be used to create denser and more efficient circuits. This translates to smaller, faster, and more powerful computer chips. The magnetism in graphene can be turned off like electronic transistors offering a major advance in the field of spintronics, which makes it possible to process vast amounts of data quickly in an energy-efficient way. Graphene could radically expedite the internet, allowing users to download entire film libraries in a few seconds.
One of graphene's most universal applications could be its ability to purify water. Graphene membranes could purify water on a small scale or be used to create efficient inexpensive desalination plants. This technology could be particularly useful in the developing world and in drought stricken areas.
Graphene may also have non-invasive medical applications that include its possible use as a material for delivering drugs to damaged sites within the body. This could include treating patients with brain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or cancer. It may also be used to create artificial retinas and miniature cardiac pacemakers.
Graphene’s high strength and low weight could be used to produce lighter, safer more robust containers and transportation vehicles (planes, ships and trucks) that would require less fuel and make transportation more efficient. Integrating graphene into aircraft could even eliminate the dangers associated with lightning strikes on aircraft fuselages.
Graphene batteries may be able to significantly increase the range of electric vehicles. The research evidence suggests that such batteries may have a range in excess of 500 miles on a single charge. In theory, these batteries should take only a few minutes to charge.
Graphene’s hexagonal atomic structure acts like a sieve preventing some atoms, like those in fossil fuel emissions, from passing through. Graphene membranes could be incorporated into power plants and other industrial processes to prevent emissions from escaping into the atmosphere.
Graphene's implications for energy have been hailed by some as a discovery that could rival the splitting of the atom. Graphene allows positively charged hydrogen atoms or protons to pass through it while being completely impermeable to all other gases. The collected hydrogen could then be used to power fuel cells. This would enable the collection and generation of emissions free electricity, which would herald a new green energy revolution. Graphene may also prove to be an important part of a new far more efficient solar cell.
Factories can use graphene as a viable alternative to precious metals, making their goods more sustainable and less expensive to produce. It has also inspired next-generation, two-dimensional polymers made from just one layer of atoms. Applications for this graphene inspired polymer include filters, optics and sensors.
The range of applications are vast and include everything from contact lenses that give the wearer the ability to see in the dark to 3-D-printing.
These examples only scratch the surface of the uses of this revolutionary material. The actual potential of graphene is far more extensive than the examples reviewed in this article. This material may auger a paradigm shift that changes the way we conceive of and create things.
The possibilities are endless as a vast assortment of chemical components can be added to its surface to change its properties.
"Gaphene is a platform, like a chessboard, on to which one can place the pawns you want. The subtlety lies in finding the right positions. There is a real beauty in its simplicity," explained Vincent Bouchiat, from the Institut Néel in Grenoble, part of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
While the properties of graphene may seem like science fiction, it is actually being used today in numerous projects all around the world. It commonly takes forty years for a discovery to make the jump from an academic lab to a consumer product. However, Graphene is so revolutionary that it has made the jump in less than a decade.
There are currently pilot products around the world world and governments and hundreds of companies are spending billions to research the wide range of commercial applications. The EU alone plans to invest $1.3bn in graphene research between 2013 and 2023.
Graphene is already being used in mobile phones from Bluestone Global Tech, electronics from IBM and Samsung and an electric car from BASF and Daimler-Benz. There are currently more than 7000 graphene patents filed, with China (2204) and the USA (1754) leading the way. Samsung alone already has 400 patents relating to the use of graphene in energy storage technologies. There have been more than 8,000 papers written about the material since 2005 and the research continues in earnest.
When something is hailed as a miracle material it commonly ends up being hyperbole, but in the case of graphene, it is well on its way to revolutionizing materials science and helping to forge a greener world in the process.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences, courtesy flickr