Graphene… The New, New Wonder Material?

by Jack Tomlin

“Imagine bending a mobile phone around your wrist, a tablet you could drop under the wheels of a bus and pure drinking water on demand”

Pick up a pencil. Draw a line. That’s graphite. Able to communicate ideas, draw images and according to folklore, was the Russian response to NASA’s desperate and expensive attempts towards the anti-gravity biro. File that graphite down. So fine its just one layer, one atom thick. That’s graphene. Able to conduct electricity far beyond speeds attainable in silicon, filter through pure water vapour and, although so thin, is 300 times stronger than steel. Imagine bending a mobile phone around your wrist, a tablet you could drop under the wheels of a bus and pure drinking water on demand.

 

Graphene is a honeycombed, single atomic layer that could potentially have a marked impact on many areas of life. The notion of utilizing graphene has floated around for over 50 years. Yet it was not until ten years ago in the University of Manchester wherein Andre Geim and his student Kostya Novoselov noticed the effects of removing layers of graphite with parcel tape. This simple act kicked into motion the graphene-craze currently circling academics, scientists and large technology corporations, each vying for breakthroughs on the path to commercialisation.

 

Perhaps somewhat unheard of and bearing properties and potential applications farfetched to many, one would not be blamed for sitting back and watching sceptically on for any sure signs of actual developments and practical application. Although not alone, those apprehensive ought be aware that in 2010 Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their ‘Friday night experiments’. In January this year, the European Union launched an initiative to catch up with the Chinese, South Korean and American efforts in the field of graphene, with a 10-year, 1 billion euro flagship initiative for R&D across Europe.

 

In a report released by CAMBRIDGEIP in 2013, the highest amount of graphene-related patent figures sit with Chinese entities at 2,204. America follows with around 500 less and with an equally decreasing amount: South Korea. To put things in perspective, the UK has around 54. So Europe is behind in the graphene race but this will undoubtedly change due to the EU initiative. Besides government and supranational support, research in the area of graphene is being driven forward by tech companies/institutions eager to profit, trend-set and head breakthroughs. Samsung currently holds the most patents; Sandisk an American maker of flash disk storage, is second and Harvard University and the University of Sungkyunkwan University (Seoul) following close behind.

 

There’s investment, there’s potential and there’s hype. But is graphene really the next material to revolutionize our lives? Everyday farming equipment and weaponry took on a great and significant change, dictating human survival from around 1200 BC onwards. The first man-made plastic, Celluloid, came about at the hands of Alexander Parkes in 1862 who combined Cellulose and alcoholized Camphor. Now, plastics constitute a huge part of our everyday living. In the mid 20th Century silicon was used to make semiconductors for early computers, without it, modern computing and electronics as they are today would not be possible.

 

It would be easy to expect too much from graphene. Its possibilities are certainly aggrandized for the sake of inspiring investor confidence and for enjoying a potentially good thing before it is ruined. With the levels of research and investment, something must be said for the prospects of graphene. Restraint and patience though, must be had when considering it to be the next material to shape human existence.

Photos courtesy of: Josh Miller/CNET, BBC

Jack Tomlin
Jack Tomlin
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