Graphene was the talk of the technology industry eight years ago.
It was a material so strong that it would ‘take an elephant, balanced on a sharpened pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap [cling film].’
It won its creators the Nobel Prize and went on to receive a €1bn (£880m) research grant from the EU in 2013.
It was touted as the ‘miracle material’ with ‘limitless potential’ set to turn the entire technology sector upside down.
It was going to mean you ’could roll up your iPhone and stick it behind your ear like a pencil’.
Put simply, graphene is a material stronger than diamond made up of single-atom-thick carbon sheets which are light, flexible and more conductive than silicon.
Some news stories at the time expected change to be quick, silicon to be swapped out in favour of graphene and the future of super-strong, flexible screens and infinite connectivity to be ushered in.
So 15 years after its first demonstration, why hasn’t everyone heard of the material?
‘The first silicon devices were in the 1940s,’ nanotechnology expert Professor James Tour, of Rice University, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘The silicon industry didn’t kick off until 1960. So there was around a 15-year gap from the time of the first transistor to the dawn of the silicon era.
‘It wasn’t until the late 70s that you really started seeing computers really taking off.
‘[Graphene is] certainly fast compared to many other technologies getting into the marketplace.’
Some of the most interesting developments to reach the marketplace have come in medicine and the military:
- Researchers showed that a graphene bulletproof vest 0.1mm thick had twice the stopping power of a Kevlar vest or 10 times better than a steel plate
- Graphene has been used to re-fuse a spine back together after being severed
- Batteries with a full charge time of five seconds because of graphene’s conductivity have been demonstrated
- Flexible brain implants have been shown to be possible
- A sieve capable of turning seawater into drinking water has been invented
- Graphene has been used in concrete production to make it stronger and more environmentally friendly
- A transistor has been theorised that, if made, would make computers 1,000 times quicker and require 1% of the energy to run. It would move your 3GHz laptop to a 3,000Ghz machine
- The world’s thinnest lightbulb (one atom thick) has been created
That’s all very exciting but it’s not quite the moment that Thomas Edison turned on the original light bulb or John Logie Baird switched on the TV… yet.
So what’s going on?
It will likely need a big overnight change to bring it to mainstream attention or the precise moment when (if?) the computer becomes 1,000 times quicker.
‘There are almost infinite applications for graphene,’ James Baker, CEO of graphene at the University Of Manchester, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘[They go] from aerospace to automotive to electronics to biomedical to novel membrane technologies.
‘Products are starting to exist and I believe we are approaching a “tipping point” of new products and applications in everyday life.’
The global market for graphene is projected to reach nearly $200m (£158m) by 2022.
One of the limitations at the moment is cost.
Top quality graphene currently costs $10,000-a-tonne (£7,900) because it has a complex production process. It used to need expensive materials like platinum, nickel or titanium carbide but now uses copper foil but is still a difficult thing to get right (less high quality graphene can already be bought cheaply).
But, Metro.co.uk has been told, a big change in production method is coming in the next 18 months that will bring the price down very quickly. Nobody would speak about it on the record when asked.
MIT is already experimenting with scalable manufacturing processes.
This would mean that all this ‘potential’ of graphene starts becoming more of a reality.
So what is that reality?
What is graphene?
In simple terms, graphene is a two-dimensional atomic crystal made up of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. Due to its unique combination of superior properties, graphene is a credible starting point for new disruptive technologies across a wide range of fields.
Graphene is the thinnest compound known to man at one atom thick (a million times thinner than a human hair), the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel), the lightest material known (with one square meter weighing approximately 0,77 milligrams),and extremely flexible.
It is also impermeable to molecules, and is highly electrically and thermally conductive – graphene enables electrons to flow much faster than silicon. It is also a transparent conductor, combining electrical and optical functionalities in an exceptional way.
Source: Graphene Flagship
‘Flexible screens are already happening but what can happen with graphene is much grander than that,’ Professor Tour says.
‘I think it will be happening soon. We’re right at the cusp of it actually.
‘The miracle of graphene is that it’s so simple but it’s made out of a structure that is one of the strongest bonds in the universe.’
What we’re on the ‘cusp’ of remains to be seen but there are many projects being worked on:
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $100,000 for research into redesigning the condom using materials like graphene
- Tt is said to be able to improve the pace of DNA sequencing
- The experiments with concrete discussed above could by itself cut global CO2 emissions by up to 5% (concrete production is estimated to account for 8% of total emissions
- Airbus is experimenting with making plane parts using graphene
- Your Kindle reader might be about to become paper-thin and made with graphene.
The potential applications for the material go on and on and on.
All this is fascinating but there are those who think that all the hype lacks substance.
‘Graphene looks much closer to the next carbon nanotube [which has limited uses] than the next silicon,’ Lux Research has said.
Graphene’s severe under-performance to live up to the massive hype [is] pronounced. [There are] all these startups with unproven technical value and business execution.’
It’s already being used as a marketing tactic, with tennis star Novak Djokovic very happy with his graphene-optimised racket.
And Lux’s point is that all of graphene’s ‘potential’ and ‘limitless’ uses are still potential and theory.
The industry is progressing quickly but literally billions of pounds are being spent on making its adoption and progression as quick as possible.
‘A hypothetical 1-metre-square hammock of perfect graphene could support a 4-kilogram cat,’ the Nobel prize committee says.
‘The hammock would weigh 0.77 milligrams — less than the weight of a cat’s whisker — and would be virtually invisible.’
It will take that one light-bulb moment before the mainstream really sees graphene as anything like the cat’s whiskers.
The Future Of Everything
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