The next technological revolution is hiding in plain sight — right on your desk — in the form of graphene, a material found in graphite pencils. Scientists around the world spent decades searching for two-dimensional materials, but the solution required only the most basic of office supplies. Graphene applications could be a game changer in many different industries.
Graphene’s Humble Origins
What is graphite? According to the Minerals Education Coalition, it is an extremely soft mineral form of carbon that breaks into small, flexible flakes. Known as the dusty gray material at the core of boring old pencils, graphite contains a remarkable material called graphene.
Just one atom thick, graphene has been dubbed the “wonder material” because it is thinner, lighter and more conductive than any other material in the world. It is stronger than steel, while also being flexible and nearly transparent. These unique properties make graphene a highly sought-after material, according to The University of Manchester.
Scientists have been interested in graphene since as early as 1859, according to the Graphene Flagship, but isolating such a thin layer of material is tricky. In 2004, researchers at The University of Manchester used Scotch tape to collect graphite dust and isolate graphene, the world’s first 2-D material. This method earned them the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.
Since then, there has been an explosion in graphene research and high demand from industries such as aerospace, automotive, electronics and more.
Currently there are only a few graphene-based items available, but true commercialization is within reach.
Graphene’s potential applications are infinite. For example, it can be used for industrial coatings to prevent corrosion of steel. According to The University of Manchester, “by combining graphene with paint, a unique graphene coating is formed, which could signal the end of the deterioration of ships and cars through rust.” The university also states that graphene could soon vastly improve biomedical devices, water purification technology, batteries and more.
Graphene-based batteries would be much better than current options because they’d charge more quickly, hold more energy, last longer and harm the environment less. If they work, these batteries could be used to improve energy storage for infrastructure, like power grids, transportation and consumer electronics.
The unique optical properties of graphene could be used for light-based electronics, such as displays that bend. Graphene-info notes that graphene could also be used to make conductive ink to print electronic circuits, such as an antenna made of graphene ink, which could be used to make cheaper radio frequency identification tags and wearable sensors.
And this is just the beginning.
What’s the Holdup?
There is a big leap between theory and practice. Researchers at Northrop Grumman and hundreds of other labs around the world are trying to manipulate this wonderful but tricky material.
“The most interesting aspects of graphene arise from its two-dimensional crystal structure and unique electronic properties. However, both of those features come with significant tradeoffs, which need to be understood before they can be fully exploited,” said Vincent Gambin, principal scientist at Northrop Grumman. “In the end, one of graphene’s most important contributions might be that it has introduced the research community to a new world of two-dimensional and topological materials.”
Although graphene frequently makes headlines for research breakthroughs, it is still in the early days of product development. A recurring theme in various graphene applications is addressing the need to develop affordable mass production methods. At this stage, we don’t know exactly what’s going on with graphene manufacturing — it’s happening in secrecy so producers can protect commercially sensitive information. In December 2017, the Graphene Council wrote, “Quietly, behind the scenes and under the cover of NDAs and confidentiality agreements, graphene is making significant commercial advances.”