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This Wonder Material Does it All… and It’s Just Getting Started

Picture the scene: It’s a wild Friday night at the University of Manchester in England back in 2004…

Two scientists are letting off steam and mucking about with some Scotch tape.

Kids these days, eh? Always up to no good.

Not so fast, though.

In this case, they accidentally hit on a discovery that’s shaken the foundations of structural engineering, quantum physics, and nanoscience more than any other.

The properties and behaviors of this material are so full of curious, yet beneficial, contradictions that it’s spawned over 100,000 studies since its discovery.

For instance…

  • It’s the strongest material currently known to man – about 100 times stronger than steel.
  • It’s the best conductor of heat and a good conductor of electricity. In fact, it conducts electricity better than copper.
  • It can block helium – the smallest atom on the periodic table – but is permeable to water vapor.
  • It’s said to be harder than a diamond, yet flexible like rubber.
  • The material is so light and strong that a one square meter sheet weighs less than three ounces and can support a nine-pound cat.

All this… and at just one atom thick, too, it’s the thinnest material ever created.

I’m talking about graphite’s thinner, honeycomb-shaped cousin – graphene.

And as for Andrei Geim and Konstantin Novoselev – those Russian scientists that discovered it – well, six years later, their pioneering efforts won them the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Graphene Will Filter into Everyday Life

Writing in the Nature journal, Professor Novoselov and his fellow scientists discussed how graphene could be used and whether it could become “the next disruptive technology, replacing some of the currently used materials and leading to new markets.”

Indeed, scientists continue to find that this material can do some remarkable things. For example…

~ E-Paper: Graphene’s electro-magnetic properties make it an excellent candidate for E-ink and flexible electronic screens. The Nature study says a prototype is expected by 2015. At the moment, though, the high costs are a barrier to creating a product for the mass market.

~ Mobile Devices: Mixed with plastic, graphene could make phones, tablets and computers lighter and more flexible. Eventually, it could replace the silicon chip altogether.

~ Energy: It can convert light into electricity and electricity into light.

~ Manufacturing: It can be used to build transistors, solar cells and lasers.

~ Water Filtration: Its behavior in the presence of water makes it an ideal filtration system.

~ Cleaning Agent: Add boron to graphene and you get “white graphene” an incredibly effective cleaner-upper of industrial and radioactive pollutants.

~ Waterproofing: Used as a paint, graphene is so thin that a layer could be applied to steel structures and cars to protect against water and rust damage.

~ Battery Charging: It could radically boost battery life and recharge your cellphone in minutes.

Partnerships and Challenges

You create graphene every time you put pencil to paper. But some of the larger potential applications for graphene are a way off yet.

That’s because the scalability and cost makes large-scale adoption a challenge at the moment.

When Geim and Novoselev first created graphene, they did so by using Scotch tape to split graphite flakes into their smallest components. But needless to say, Scotch tape isn’t the most scalable manufacturing method.

However, money is pouring into graphene research from around the world, as the race hots up to exploit its properties and develop techniques to commercialize it.

Britain has pledged $90 million in partnership with Dyson, BAE Systems (BAESY), Nokia (NOK), Sharp (SHCAY) and Phillips Research. South Korea is also banking heavily on graphene by pouring $41 million into research.

The European Union will award one billion euros over the next 10 years for research into cutting edge uses for graphene.

Over 7,000 graphene patents are now in the global pipeline, with China holding the most – 2,204.

And breakthroughs are coming. As recently as 2009, it was only possible to manufacture graphene samples less than an inch wide. But in 2010, Samsung-backed researchers at a South Korean university created a newspaper-sized roll of the material and demonstrated it on touch-sensitive tablet screens.

Since then Sony (SNE) has built a machine that can create rolls of graphene that are 100 meters long. With each new advance, the fabrication costs decrease significantly.

Two Dimensions Are Better Than Three

For now, the future of graphene appears trained on replacing current materials. But as research into completely new and innovative uses for this material continues, its worth cannot be fully understood.

The scientists noted as much in Nature, saying graphene’s “full potential will only be realized in novel applications, which are designed specifically with this material in mind.”

In addition, those scalability and cost challenges will also have to be overcome in order for graphene to make practical and financial sense.

Consider that the typical gestation period for a disruptive technology is 20 years. Think the internet (created in 1983) and cellphone technology (created in 1973). By that logic, graphene will be hitting its stride around 2024, perhaps in a way we have yet to imagine.

Whatever graphene’s future, its discovery has spawned a new branch of research, stripping materials down to their 2-D versions, and rearranging their atomic structures to test their stability and properties. There are now more than 10 2-D materials with similar properties to graphene in existence being tested.

Ultimately, graphene’s wide-ranging potential is too appealing to be dismissed. That’s why so much money is being pumped into R&D. And armed with that money, some of the brightest minds in the world are on a long-term mission to build the graphene revolution.

Ahead of the tape,

Elizabeth Carney