MIT researchers made headlines recently when they showed off a futuristic construction material made from 3D-printed graphene that’s incredibly light — only 5 percent density — but 10 times stronger than steel. And researchers at the University of Manchester, where graphene was first produced in 2004, are testing a graphene oxide sieve that may provide a cheap and energy-efficient way of producing fresh drinking water from seawater.
So what’s standing in the way of our graphene-powered future? Price used to be a major obstacle. Back in 2006, when graphene production was in its infancy, the price for even a tiny piece of graphene was absurdly high. “We’re talking about trillions of dollars per gram,” Ferrari said.
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Not anymore. De la Fuente told Seeker that the sales price of his graphene has dropped 27 percent per year since Graphenea opened in 2010. The price of single-layer sheet of graphene is now as low as 50 cents per square centimeter, the same as silicon, said De la Fuente.
And new, even cheaper methods of making graphene are showing up every day. The original technique was to exfoliate single layers from graphite. Next, researchers figured out how to “grow” layers of graphene in the lab using a method called chemical vapor deposition. Recently a team at Kansas State University stumbled on a new method that creates bucket loads of powdered graphene from igniting oxygen and hydrocarbon gas. Boom.
As graphene gets cheaper and more abundant, it’s worth asking, given all of its miraculous properties, will graphene eventually replace silicon as the foundation of our computers and electronic devices, ushering in a new era of crazy thin and fast machines? Not quite.
Graphene alone will never replace silicon for the simple fact that graphene isn’t a semiconductor. A sheet of pure graphene conducts electricity brilliantly, but it can’t shut off the flow of electrons. That’s the difference between a conductor and a semiconductor. For graphene to be used in processors, it will almost certainly need to be combined with other materials. This will diminish some of graphene’s superpowers, but perhaps still outperform the competition.
Ferrari at Cambridge said that there are around 2,000 other materials with the same, layered structure as graphite, the source of graphene. Now that researchers know how to separate graphite into single layers, they can employ the same technique to create all sorts of new monolayer materials, some of which are excellent semiconductors.
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When single layers of these new materials are stacked and sandwiched between layers of graphene at varying angles, “the combinations are nearly infinite,” said Ferrari. “So 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.”
As for the hype around graphene, it’s par for the course for any new advanced material. In Gartner’s 2016 Hype Cycle for Semiconductors and Electronics Technologies, industry analysts place graphene squarely at the “peak of inflated expectations.” The next phase is the “trough of disillusionment” as investment flags and initial expectations fizzle. Graphenea CEO De la Fuente fully expects to enter the “trough” in the coming year.
Ferrari at the Cambridge Graphene Center is optimistic about graphene’s fate, but not blind to the challenges.
“Nobody knows the future. It can all end up as nothing as well. We’re in a situation where graphene has a lot of potential, but will take a lot of hard work at least for the next 10 to 15 years to make this become a reality,” said Ferrari. “We don’t know if it will succeed or not, but I’m becoming a lot more positive about the outcome.”
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