Space & Innovation

Top 10 Uses for the World's Strongest Material

Graphene is strong, lightweight, conducts electricity and resists rust.

Graphene is the world's new wonder material. It's the thinnest electronic material ever invented, consisting of a layer of carbon atoms just a single atom thick -- the atoms are arranged in a hexagonal pattern. It weighs almost nothing, coming in at only 0.77 grams for a square meter.

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But it's no lightweight. Graphene is 100 times stronger than steel of the same thickness. It conducts both heat and electricity better than copper, and has outstanding optical and mechanical properties. If it could be produced on an industrial scale, graphene might revolutionize fields such as electronics and even body armor. Recently, the European Union awarded the Finnish company Nokia a $1.3 billion research grant to commercialize graphene. What follows are 10 areas in which graphene could make a huge difference -- some sooner than you think.

1. Graphene repels water and is highly conductive, a combination that keeps steel from coming into contact with water and slows down the electrochemical reactions that oxidize iron. At SUNY Buffalo chemists designed a polymer coating containing this exotic form of carbon. They painted steel with the coating and then dipped the coated metal in a brine to see if it would stay rust-free. It did -- for an entire month. Such a coating could eliminate rusted cars forever.

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2. At the University of Texas researchers put a layer of graphene less than a single nanometer thick onto glass and two different types of plastic. Next, they ran an alternating current through the layers, which produced sound. The graphene speakers are thin and because they transmit the heat energy from the electrical current to make sound, rather than vibrating a diaphragm, they can be made into any shape.

3. A capacitor stores charge between two plates, and discharges quickly; they are common in electronics and used to power camera flashes. Capacitors can store a lot of charge, and supercapacitors, which are typically made with layers of ordinary carbon, can store more. But capacitors still can't hold much power per unit of weight. That is why batteries are used for electronics.

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Graphene could change that. It can be etched with a laser to create more surface area and in turn allow a capacitor to store way more energy than its ordinary carbon brethren. Capacitors can also go through many more cycles than batteries without failing. In the future, graphene supercapacitors could power electronics and even electric cars.

4. Graphene oxide is remarkably good at absorbing radioactive waste. Researchers at Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University found that microscopic bits of graphene oxide bind to radioactive contaminants, turning them into clumps that can be easily collected.

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Beyond cleaning up after nuclear accidents like the Fukushima disaster, it would be a big help in mining and natural gas drilling. Both industries can generate a lot of naturally-occurring contaminants that can get into local water supplies.

5. Silicon semiconductor chips give computers their brainpower. They process the 1s and 0s of binary code that are the fundamental building blocks of digital information. But graphene has the potential to process those 1s and 0s much faster than silicon because it conducts electricity better, all while using less power and generating less heat. That means a laptop could operate 50 times faster and need no cooling fans. Over the last two years giants such as IBM have developed working graphene-based processors for wireless devices, and one company, Digital Core Design of Poland, announced in April that it built a processor that could work in a tablet. The first graphene processors could be reaching consumers in the next five years, as manufacturers refine the fabrication process.

6. Sheets of graphene can crumple up like paper, but they are difficult to flatten out. At Duke University scientists recently attached graphene to a pre-stretched rubber sheet and found that when the sheet was relaxed, the graphene still adhered to the rubber even though it was crumpled up. That led them to layer the graphene with polymer, which expanded and contracted when a current was run through it – a key component in building artificial muscle.

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7. Graphene foam can pick up small concentrations of the nitrates and ammonia found in explosives. A sensor developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the size of a postage stamp could one day be a regular part of the kit carried by bomb squads.

8. By controlling the size of pores in graphene, it's possible to make it into a kind of "filter" that sorts DNA molecules by size. That capability could allow researchers to sequence DNA at a lower cost than current techniques – to about $1,000 per person. Currently, sequencing a person's genome costs three to five times that, according to San Francisco-based Life Technologies, which rolled out a machine last year that does the job. Unfortunately, the machine itself is $149,000.

9. Australian researchers found a way to make fibers from a composite material made of graphene that's stronger than Kevlar. Adding an equal amount of graphene and carbon nanotubes to a polymer produced a super-strong fiber that could be spun into the fabric used to make bulletproof vests. The fibers could also be used to strengthen other materials.

10. Photodetectors are computer chips that convert photons from light into electrical signals. Every digital camera has one and they are made of silicon. Frank Koppens and his colleagues at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona dotted a layer of graphene with lead sulfide and created an ultra-sensitive and flexible photodector that could lead to thinner cameras and more lightweight night vision goggles.