Graphene almost sounds like the stuff of science fiction, or at least a dead-of-night infomercial — too good to be true, too amazing to be believed.
It has been called a “supermaterial,” in that it is composed of a carbon layer just one atom thick, making it the world’s only two-dimensional material. Yet it is quite strong. It is also flexible yet transparent, conductive yet impermeable (except for water).
As a result, there are all manner of potential uses for graphene (as well as nanotubes, a rolled cylindrical version of the substance). They include such areas as energy creation, information technology, and sustainability.
And here’s the thing — research into graphene is still in its infancy. While there is evidence it was used as far back as the Neolithic Era (and while it was studied in the 1940s), it wasn’t really discovered, per se, until physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosolev did so in 2004.
What this means is, there are likely possibilities for graphene that have yet to be considered, things that go well beyond the research that has been conducted since Geim made his initial discovery.
Geim, born in Russia to German parents, was conducting experiments at the University of Manchester in the early 2000s. One involved the possibility of reducing a graphite block to a layer that was between 10 and 100 layers thick. One of his students attempted to do so and managed to come up with a fleck of graphite that was some 1,000 layers thick.
Then Geim gave it a try, using Scotch tape. He managed to peel off a layer, and by repeatedly using the tape came up with layers that were progressively smaller. Eventually, he whittled the graphite down until it was 10 layers thick. Further refinements led to the first graphite sheets, in which the atoms are arranged in a hexagonal pattern.
That advance resulted in Geim and Novosolev winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics, though it is everyone else who will truly reap the benefits of their work.
Here are some of the many possibilities for graphene/nano, as noted in a digitaltrends.com report:
- Solar Power: Silicon is most often used in solar cells, but research indicates that graphene could be far more efficient — that while silicon releases a single electron when hit by sunlight, graphene would release several. But again, there is still much to learn on this front.
- Semi-Conductor: A Department of Energy study showed what has been suspected — that graphene can help semiconductors operate more efficiently. Specific to the study, semiconductive polymers conducted electricity more quickly when placed atop a layer of graphene. The caveat is that the flow of electricity through graphene cannot be interrupted, though advances are being made in that area.
- Water Filtration: Water is the only gas or liquid capable of permeating graphene, giving it the potential to filter out toxins, or desalinate seawater — something especially critical given the looming worldwide water crisis.
- Flexible Electronics: The durability of such things as smartphones and tablets could be greatly improved by graphene. No longer would there be worries about damaging a phone that is in your pocket, when you bend over or exercise.
- Biomedical Research: It is feasible that sensors or small machines made of graphene could be inserted into the human body, to examine different areas or deliver medication to a desired location.
Another report suggested that graphene could also be used in transparent screens, camera sensors or in material strengthening and even DNA sequencing.
Again, there is a long way to go before graphene’s full potential is realized. But the sky appears to be the limit.