G G raphene, the thinnest and strongest material on Earth, is just one atom thick yet 150 times stronger than the same weight of steel. A square meter of graphene is 1,000 times lighter than a piece of paper and more flexible than rubber. Graphene conducts electricity more than 200 times more efficiently than silicon and is made entirely of carbon, the fourth most-abundant element in the universe.
Since 2004, when researchers first isolated a single-atom-thick sheet of graphene from normal graphite — a feat that won them the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010 — some of the loftiest hopes of the technological world have been heaped on the shoulders of this “miracle material.”
Viewed at atomic scale, graphene is a two-dimensional matrix of carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal bonds like chicken wire. If you held a piece of graphene in your hand, it would be perfectly flat, 97-percent transparent and gossamer. But its unique physical properties make it one of the most hyped materials on the market.
Graphene, some predict, will usurp silicon as the backbone of our electronic circuits, enabling leaps in processing speeds well beyond Moore’s Law inside devices that are lighter, thinner, and more flexible. Others dream about graphene-boosted batteries that pack many times the energy density of today’s lithium-ion technology, greatly extending the range of electric vehicles and charging our phones and laptops in seconds.
In the near future, lightweight circuits printed with graphene ink might be embedded into product packaging, clothing, and even temporary tattoos right on your skin. These cheap and efficient wireless circuits will drive the Internet of Things, some acting as sensors (think of biosensors embedded into clothing to track your health) and others as “smart tags” that transmit useful product information to your phone.
Graphene’s lightweight strength will be used to create next-generation composites that will help us engineer lighter, faster, and safer vehicles and aircraft. The same composite materials and coatings will benefit from graphene’s exceptional electrical conductivity, turning a simple coat of paint into a heat sensor or wireless transmitter.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an industry or technology that wouldn’t potentially be transformed — or at least significantly impacted — if graphene lives up to the hype.
Andrea Ferrari is a nanotechnology professor at the University of Cambridge and director of the Cambridge Graphene Center, one of the leading academic research centers into the properties of and commercial applications for graphene. In an interview with Seeker, he said that “you can go on and on naming the possible applications for graphene.”
But it’s also hard to believe that any single material will really be as disruptive and game-changing as the graphene evangelists dream it will be. If the history of material science is any indication, graphene may very well trigger leaps in technological innovation — including entirely new products and unimagined applications — but we might have to wait a few years (or many years, in some cases) to see it happen.
So the question is: When will we actually see the miracles promised by the world’s most novel material?
“Graphene is just the tip of a massively huge iceberg that we just started to scratch from the top. We’re at the very beginning of a very long field of research and technology that will last for decades to come.”