Graphene: A Material Marvel of the Century

The simplest observations are sometimes the greatest discoveries. Watching an apple falling from its branch, Isaac Newton discovered the famous law of universal gravitation. Almost three centuries later, science could take another leap forward with … a roll of tape.

There is a new wonder material in town that might change our future. Imagine a coffee cup that streams the day’s headlines in real time. Or a cooking pot that can detect the presence of E. coli bacteria that could make you sick. Or a television screen that is as flexible and thin as a piece of paper. All of these applications could be a reality if the wonder material, named Graphene, lives up to its hype.

A Complicated Narrative

The story begins in 2004 in the laboratories of the University of Manchester. Fascination with this material stems from its remarkable physical properties and the potential applications they offer. Although scientists knew one atom thick, two-dimensional crystal graphene existed, no-one had worked out how to extract it from graphite.

That was until it was isolated in 2004 by two researchers at The University of Manchester: Prof. Andre Geim and Prof. Kostya Novoselov. This is the story of how that stunning scientific feat achieved while peeling layers of graphite using adhesive tapes, and why Andre-Kostya duo won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering work. This is the beginning of a scientific and engineering renaissance.

Unboxing Graphene

Graphene is a material that can be perceived as a form of graphite, and therefore a carbon allotrope that is distinguished by its crystalline organization. In simple terms graphene is a sheet of a single layer (monolayer) of carbon atoms, tightly bound in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. It is the building-block of Graphite but graphene is a remarkable substance on its own – with a multitude of astonishing properties proving the title of ‘wonder material’.

Graphene is the thinnest compound known to man having size equal to one atom thick, the lightest material known, the strongest compound discovered surpassing diamond, the best conductor of heat at room temperature and also the best conductor of electricity known to exist.

The Material of the Future

Graphene is a disruptive phenomenon; one which could open up new markets and even replace existing technologies or materials. It is when graphene is used both to improve an existing material and in a transformational capacity its true potential can be realised. The vast number of products, processes and industries for which graphene could create a significant impact, all stems from its amazing properties.

  • Biomedical

Graphene’s unique properties allow for ground-breaking biomedical applications; Targeted drug delivery, improved brain penetration, DIY health-testing kits and ‘smart’ implants can be mentioned out of many possibilities.

  • Composite Materials

One of the simplest and most effective ways of harnessing the potential of graphene is to combine it with existing products – so called composite materials. By combining with paints, a unique graphene coating can be formed which could signal the end of the deterioration of ships and cars through rust. Additionally, it can do wonders in the field of weather-proofing, packaging, sports equipment and creating lightest, strongest, safest structures.

  • Electronics

Graphene has the potential to create the next-generation of electronics exploring spheres of Sci-Fi technology, faster transistors, semiconductors, bendable phones, wearable gadgets and other electronics.

  • Energy

With its influential properties and capabilities, graphene is surely an innovation with distinct future prospects. Bearing this in mind, one might be surprised to know that carbon is the second most abundant mass within the human body and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass, after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. This makes carbon the chemical basis for all known life on earth, so therefore graphene could well be an ecologically friendly, sustainable solution for astronomical energy demands. Imagine fully charging a smartphone in seconds or an electric car in minutes. That’s the power of graphene batteries and super-capacitors.

  • Filtration Membranes

Imagine clean drinking water for millions in developing countries. A global toll of 3.4 million deaths each year is a serious concern which underlines the gravity of clean water requirement. The development of graphene-based membranes has brought that possibility closer like never before.

  • Sensors

Ultra-sensitive sensors made from graphene could detect minute dangerous particles helping to protect potentially dangerous environments. Its inherently micro-sized structure allows for the creation of hair thin like sensors which can be incorporated to detect biological agents like drugs in our body, stresses and strain levels, atmospheric changes caused by decaying food, and many more.

Future

It must be a wondering question that despite of graphene’s prodigious abilities why it has not hit the ground reality. The problem that prevented it from initially being unavailable for commercial uses was that the creation of high quality graphene was a very expensive and complex process. “Its industrial production is not yet based on reliable methods to obtain large quantities,” claims Alberto Bianco, a researcher at the CNRS and the University of Strasbourg. It was estimated in 2008 that the production of a square meter of this miracle material cost a whopping amount of 600 billion euros.

However, studies in 2012 found that by analysing its interfacial adhesive energy, it is possible to effectually separate graphene from the metallic board on which it is grown. As the techniques continue to evolve in nearby future, on the account of its high productivity, a sharp decline in price is expected to be achieved.

The range of industries where graphene research is making an impact is substantial. And this is only the beginning. These are only the baby steps. Although, it’s important to consider the span within which it is likely to exist in customary life, one simply cannot overlook the inconceivable and endless potential of this supernatural material. With continuously growing necessities and depleting resources of the contemporary world, graphene will certainly turn out to be a panacea of all remedies.

– Dhiraj Gore

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