Graphene: Thin, strong, and ready to change the world
Science is all about technique and expertise: carefully calculated and calibrated methodology designed to produce specific results. And yet some of science’s most significant discoveries have come about entirely by accident. The most common example of this is penicillin, but another more recent – and perhaps even more life-changing – example is the discovery of graphene.
The world’s first two-dimensional material
Graphene is a single, extremely thin layer of graphite that is one-atom thick. It is the first two-dimensional material to ever be discovered. Isolated from graphite, graphene takes on incredible properties: it is 200 times stronger than steel and the most conductive material known to man. It is also extremely flexible.
The secret behind graphene’s properties appears to lie in its structure. The carbon atoms that make up graphene are distributed in a perfect hexagonal honeycomb structure that is 0.3 nanometers thick, with exactly 0.1 nanometers between each atom. Graphite itself is composed of millions of layers of graphene, with a distance of 0.335 nanometers between each layer.
According to an article in “The New Yorker,” the scientists behind graphene, Dr. Andre Geim, a professor at the University of Manchester, along with PhD students Konstantin Novoselov and Da Jiang, stumbled upon this wonder material during an informal session hosted by Dr. Geim where he encouraged students to experiment freely.
After examining the extremely thin layers in a speck of carbon graphite through a microscope, Dr. Geim attempted to isolate the layers even further using scotch tape, until he discovered graphene. In 2004, Dr. Geim and Novoselov published a paper outlining their discovery, and six years later they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The potential for graphene seems endless, with applications possible in everything from electronics – to energy – to medicine, but there are a few obstacles in the way. The main one is money: graphene is extremely expensive to produce in quantities large enough for mass production. Where large portions of graphene can be produced, there is the risk of flaws and fissures developing and rendering the material unusable.
Despite this, enthusiasm for this new material remains strong, as the right materials selection can make all the difference in a project. Currently, there are over 8,000 patents involving graphene worldwide as of 2013. Samsung currently holds the most patents in graphene and is working with a Korean University to research uses and applications. In fact, universities and research institutions around the world are investing time and money to unearth the full potential of graphene and how it can best be used.
According to “The New Yorker” piece, it takes years, sometimes decades, for discoveries like graphene to become a part of the marketplace no matter how innovative. But with the rapid pace of development and patent production, it seems like graphene may have a competitive edge. What’s certain is that this two-dimensional material is poised to transform our three-dimensional world.