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Graphene - What is it Exactly?

Updated on January 24, 2013

Graphene is the name of the purest and simplest form of carbon.

It is basically just a single layer, one atom thick carbon structure of honeycomb joined singly that is super strong, yet flexible like rubber. It is stronger and stiffer than diamond and can amazingly be stretched by up to a quarter of it length.

But the most exciting thing about graphene is not only its ability to conduct electricity, it is how the electrons react. In other materials that conduct electricity, the electrons scatter all over the place in constant motion, similar to the balls inside a pinball machine. This is because the electrons encounter impurities in the crystal's lattice, barring their way and so they change direction to bypass those impurities.

In graphene, the electrons move in unison and in fact, travel immense distances really quickly without scattering. This opens up the possibility of super ultra-fast electronics with exciting new developments in the world of computing and microprocessing.

graphene honeycomb structure
graphene honeycomb structure

Graphene was not invented by Nobel Prize winning scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester, in the UK.

Graphene has in fact been around since the beginning of time, and shares many properties with other elements believed to date back to the Big Bang when our universe as we know it was first formed.

The amazing thing that Geim and Novoselov did was discover how to prise a carbon sheet apart to produce that single layer of honeycomb lattice carbon atoms. Before that it couldn't be done as layers of carbon tend to strongly attract each other. Lumps of carbon sheets stuck together are known as graphite, which as we all know as we have frequently broken off the writing end of pencils, breaks easily.

Once they had isolated a single layer, they set about learning its properties and it is for those studies that they have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

graphene
graphene | Source

As well as its ability to conduct electricity better than any other substance known to man, other tests have shown that graphene is impermeable to liquids or gases, it conducts heat and electricity and it is better suited to the making of transistors than slicon.

With graphene, experimentation with high-speed quantum particles are possible for the first time. The quasiparticles produced by graphene can travel at speeds close to the speed of light.

Quasiparticles is a term used in quantum physics to describe the behaviour of a group of particles that together act as one particle with the same characteristics and effect on its local environment.

For the first time, scientists can now take a step into a futuristic scenario where experimentation previously only dreamt about can be carried out, with perhaps exciting possibilities for the future of space travel among other more Earth-based idealisms, like almost instant internet access or miniature computers with the same processing abilities that huge NASA computers use now.

In the fascinating world of quantum physics, superfast quasiparticles could pass through solid materials in the blink of an eye, opening up the possibility of real life tele-transportation as in "Beam me up, Scotty" Star Trek.

While much experimentation has still to be done, including finding more effective ways of isolating a single sheet of graphene, the world of science has been changed forever. This is the legacy of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov.

graphene under the microscope
graphene under the microscope | Source

A nonofabric, graphene is a family member of the associated and recently discovered fullerene molecules, which include buckyballs and nanotubes.

The fullerenes feature unusual molecular properties that, when developed, could offer off-the-scale ultra-fast electronic transistors thanks to their strength, speed and lack of resistance.

Scientists have been trying to exploit this for computing because smaller transistors mean the distances electrons have to travel become shorter, meaning faster speeds.

Their size is ideal because the smaller the transistor components, the less distance electrons have to travel. This in turn equates to faster speeds.

They may one day soon replace silicon which is currently used as the switches to change the flow and currents in computers and other electronics.

Work is underway to use nanotubes for transistors. Nanotubes are sheets of graphite rolled into cylinders, which work in a similar fashion to graphene but without the strength. The main problem with nanotubes is that they have to rolled into cylinders to work.

Graphene forms flat sheets that are not only incredibly strong, but have many more uses in the electronics industry.

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