Graphene is a transparent, two-dimensional sheet of carbon of atoms arranged in a perfect hexagonal lattice, one atomic layer thick. This super material was only discovered just over 10 years ago and is currently being researched all around the world.
A brief history
Scientists had been looking for Graphene since 1859 using complex experiments with no success. The first crystals of Graphene were discovered in 2004 using nothing more than simple sticky tape. One late Friday night in Manchester scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, noticed small flakes of Graphene on a piece of tape. The tape was originally being used to clean a graphite stone.
When they removed the tape from the graphite they noticed that there were flakes stuck to the tape. They then took a closer look and saw that some flakes were thinner than others. They separated these graphite fragments repeatedly until they managed to create flakes that were one atom thick. This was the first time in history that Graphene had ever been isolated.
Thanks to this simple and ground-breaking experiment Geim and Novoselov both received a Noble prize for physics in 2010.The method became known as the scotch tape method and lead to the rapid growth of this area of science all around the world.
What makes Graphene a super material
Graphene has numerous amazing properties which make it easy to understand why it has been called a super material:
- It is the first 2D material ever known to man.
- It is the thinnest and lightest material ever made.
- It is the world’s strongest material (200 times stronger than steel) – A Graphene strand thinner than a human hair can support the full weight of a grand piano.
- It is harder than diamond.
- It conducts electricity and heat almost better than any other material.
- It is a transparent material that only allows 2% of light through.
- It is flexible/bendable and can take any form.
- It can act as a barrier – not even helium (considered to be the hardest gas to block) can pass through it.
- It gave birth to a new class of crystals that are only one atom thin. These crystals can be arranged with each other to engineer new materials on demand.
Thanks to all of its properties graphene is a multifunctional material that is going to revolutionise our lives.
The multifunctional nature of Graphene means that it is going to have limitless applications. Transport, medicine, electronics, energy, defence and desalination are the major industries that will be heavily impacted by the use of Graphene.
The University of Manchester is currently the leading establishment for Graphene research. Researchers have currently developed Graphene products in the fields of membranes, composites and coatings, energy, biomedical, sensors and electronics.
Membranes made from Graphene Oxide are capable of forming a perfect barrier when dealing with liquids and gases. They can effectively separate organic solvents from water and remove water from a gas mixture. These membranes can be used for water filtration, gas separation and desalination projects.
Research is currently being conducted to try to integrate these membranes into desalination plants. Computer models have predicted that if we could use these membranes the amount of energy used for the reverse osmosis process would be decreased from 15-46% which will drastically cut down the cost of the desalination process.
Composites and coatings
Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a special paint using graphene oxide. The paint provides an ultra-strong coating and is impermeable to gas, liquid and strong chemicals. This could make chemical containers and ships rust proof.
Graphene coatings could be used on food and pharmaceutical packaging to stop the transfer of water and oxygen keeping food and perishable goods fresher for longer.
Sporting goods are constantly using new materials to enhance them. Head has already been successful in creating a graphene-enhanced tennis racket .These coatings and composites could be further involved in enhancing sports equipment in skiing, cycling, and even Formula 1 in the near future.
Graphene is believed to be the key to dramatically increasing the lifespan of the traditional lithium ion battery. This would mean that devices could be charged more quickly and hold more power for longer. Graphene batteries would be so light and flexible that they could potentially be stitched into out clothing. This development would be huge and many scientists have also suggested that these batteries could be charged using body heat or by the sun extending their capability even further.
This miracle material can also be used to create supercapacitors which could provide massive amounts of power while using much less energy than conventional devices. Imagine being able to charge your phone in a matter of seconds!
The University of Manchester is also busy investigating graphene’s potential in grid applications and storing wind or solar power. One of the biggest problems with solar power is not being able to store all the energy that we are getting from the sun. Graphene could allow us to print solar panels that store the energy right there in the panel which could then be used for a rainy day.
Graphene-based materials offer a variety of unique and versatile properties that can be creatively utilised for biomedical applications. In the biomedical sector, Graphene has numerous applications including delivery systems, sensors, tissue engineering and biological agents (for example antimicrobials). Due to the nature of its size, we will also see huge advancements in the capabilities of drug delivery to the body. It’s a large surface area allows more drugs to be loaded onto it’s surface.
Researchers are working towards improving the ability to interface graphene with the human body directly by grafting graphene onto cells. Experts predict that we may have real working bio applications by 2030.
Graphene is an ideal material for sensors. Every atom in graphene is exposed to its environment allowing it to sense changes in its surroundings. Sensors created from Graphene will be able to detect individual events on a molecular level.
Using Graphene oxide to create ‘smart’ food packaging products will dramatically cut down on unnecessary food wastage and simultaneously help prevent illnesses. These packages will have the ability detect atmospheric changes caused by decaying food.
Graphene sensors will also be hugely beneficial to farmers as it will allow them to boost the effectiveness of monitoring vital crops in the agriculture industry. Sensors will be able to determine the ideal areas for growing certain crops depending on atmospheric conditions. They will also to able to monitor the existence of any harmful gases which could impact upon crop fields.
Graphene and Electronics
The applications of Graphene are endless but the concept of bendable phones and technology woven into our clothes is not that far away.
Graphene can be used as a coating to improve current touch screens for phones and tablets. It can also be used make circuitry for our devices and computers which would make them incredibly fast. Thanks to its lightweight and flexibility it is possible to create wearable electronics by sewing graphene into our clothes. The transparent nature of graphene will allow us to create flexible screens and other amazing inventions. Imagine if you could wrap your smartphone around your wrist, roll your computer up like a newspaper when you aren’t using it or having a fully functional TV in your windows at home. This will all be possible with graphene.
Researchers at The University of Manchester have already created the world’s smallest transistor using Graphene. The smaller the size of the transistor, the better they perform within circuits. This will have a fundamental impact on electronics in the future.
As well as transistors, Graphene can also be used to create semiconductors. At just one atom thick and with the ability to conduct electricity at room temperature graphene semiconductors could replace existing technology for computer chips. Research has already shown that graphene chips are much faster than existing ones made from silicon.
It has been found by scientists in Florida that graphene can become naturally magnetic on the atomic level by manipulating the spinning atoms of carbon atoms. This means that they were able to create a one atom thick magnet. This could drastically impact the world of data storage and has allowed for the possible creation of nanoscopic data storage.
What does the future hold
Graphene is poised to revolutionise pretty much everything. Flexible supercomputers, unbreakable phone screens, smart food packaging, rust free paint, improved water filtration, wearable technology, super batteries, nanoscopic data storage devices…. the list goes on and on.
The biggest problem at the moment is scaling, as Graphene is hard to make in large quantities. Luckily efforts are being made worldwide to conduct research and advance Graphene. Thanks to mass production methods intensively being developed, we can hopefully expect to see more Graphene used in the foreseeable future.