The Tomorrow Shaped by Graphene, the Wonder Material
The old Danish tale of the emperor who was clothed with a material thinner than the air comes to mind, when thinking about the two-dimensional, one-atom thick, thinner-than-air, almost-transparent, stronger-than-diamond wonder material, graphene. The emperor’s super-fantastic thin cloth with vibrant colors and rich textures could be graphene. We knew about graphene long enough to sing its powers, but it took such a long time to produce this material to use it on science and technology innovations that will shape our world.
What Is Graphene, Exactly?
A question better left to top scientists to answer, but let me try to give it a shot here. Graphene is a two-dimensional substance. Imagine a lamellar substance that is only one atom thick. Every material we know today are composed of atoms interconnecting in a more three-dimensional way, making them normal materials. Graphene on the other hand is just a thin sheet of carbon atoms and nothing else.
When it comes to wonder elements, we cannot discount carbon either. Carbon is that black flimsy substance you get when you burn a piece of paper, or the black sticky thing you see when you overcook your pasta. In fact, the black debris that you get when you burn anything in this world is pure carbon in its natural form, which is just charcoal. The same carbon, when its atoms combine in a slightly different way, turns into the most valuable and hardest material in the planet—diamond. Mind boggling, isn’t it?
Diamond happens when carbon atoms combine in a pyramidal lattice, where the atoms form strong covalent chemical bonds making the material virtually indestructible. It’s amazing to note that the entire diamond industry of over $13 billion annual revenue is built on ashes!
Talking about other forms of carbon, we can think of graphite, which is a relatively softer and more conductive than diamond. Another form of carbon is known as fullerene, a globular or cylindrical carbon structure. Graphene is also part of this family, and it comes with more specialties than diamond itself.
Let’s look at what makes graphene so special, shall we?
- Record-breaking tensile strength: What is the toughest and strongest material in the world? People may have different opinions. Some may say steel; more knowledgeable ones may favor diamond; a more informed individual may say WBN or ACNR. While hardness and strength are two different things, scientists and informed individuals alike favor graphene as the strongest material ever.
- Sheet of atoms you can pick up: Imagine picking up an actual sheet of atoms. While you may imagine touching the air molecules while waving or the wind hits you, it’s hardly ever tangible. Also, when you touch solid objects or liquid, you are actually touching a three-dimensional collection of molecules that you can feel. But no one has ever felt a single sheet of atoms bonded so strongly that it’s difficult for a nail to pierce it. With graphene, you can do that.
- Extremely conductive: Graphene conducts electrons faster and more smoothly than the best conductor you have ever known (silver, probably). Graphene is the best thing we got close to a room-temperature superconductor. The mean free path of an electron traveling through the graphene medium is the highest of all materials known to man, making its conductivity excellent. Imagine how this will improve the electronics. Today, silver is the least resistive material in room temperature, but graphene’s resistivity is even less than that of silver.
- Thermal conductivity: Graphene holds the current record for the highest thermal conductivity. Check out this graphene ice slicer video from the Science Channel to get a hang of it.
Graphene Ice Slicer
Well, these are only a few of the remarkable feats of this material. There are several other specialties that make graphene the wonder material it is. Some other properties include its elasticity, unbelievable transparency, and impermeable nature. The properties of this material makes it perfect for some electrical innovations and as a replacement for silicon in transistors and integrated circuits.
Graphene in Electronics
The primary use of graphene is in next generation electronics. Currently the consumer electronics and your gadgets are highly dependent on a critical element, silicon, to run themselves. You know well the semiconducting nature of silicon and how this abundant element is at the core of all electronic devices today. Silicon resides on that perfect middle ground of conduction and insulation. So, switching on or off or reversing its conductivity is easy, and this is why it’s perfect for miniaturized circuits as in ICs and transistors.
But with graphene’s advent, the scenario will take an interesting paradigm shift, and it will amazingly transform the electronics industry. Tables may turn for the Apples, Samsungs, and Googles of today. Any company that capitalizes on R&D and mass production of graphene will dominate the consumer electronics industry.
Graphene's Innovative Uses
Do you think graphene and its advent to electronics is far into the future? Think again! Graphene is already there in some gadgets. It’s adoption will soon be rampant. Let’s check out some awesome graphene uses and future innovations.
Graphene-Powered Earphones, UC, Berkely
ExtremeTech reported this earphones created at the University of California, Berkely. Completely untuned and developed crudely (than actual earphone companies do), it fares better than most of the industry-standard earphones, such as the Senheisser mentioned in the article.
A key property of graphene (which we will see again below) is its impenetrability. It seems the lightest of all elements, hydrogen, is the only atom that can pass through a graphene sheet. Due to this very reason, graphene can be used to filter hydrogen from the air, where it is quite abundant. Due to this reason, graphene can be used to create hydrogen fuel cells that practically draws power from the air.
Enhance Your Vision
Imagine being able to see in total darkness. I am not talking about those fat and unwieldy night vision goggles. Graphene can be used to make thin and infinitely light contact lenses that can be used to sense more than the visible spectrum. This means, you will be able to literally see heat waves and ultraviolet rays, a feat that only a few animals, such as the pit viper.
Extremely Thin, Bright, Flexible Displays
Take a look at the display technology war waged by companies like Samsung, Apple, Sharp, and Hitachi. A lot of new display technologies have emerged such as TFT IPS, AMOLED, Super AMOLED, etc. But when graphene makes its entrance into the display world, it will be like bringing a gun to a knife fight. Graphene will bring about seamless displays that can be bent and flexed in any way, but with greater brightness, color balance, and sharpness than any other display technology available today. Also, graphene displays consume virtually no power!
We could go on and on about this wonder material. But let me stop here. Before finishing, let me also mention a more unconventional, but obvious, use of graphene due to its impregnable nature. The material is so impenetrable that helium atoms themselves (the second smallest element out there) cannot pass through graphene. Due to this very reason, it would be attractive to make condoms out of this wonder materials. It looks like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested in graphene condoms, according to BBC. Most recent research report from Nature suggests mass production of this wonder material. This hints to a very different and highly exciting future for us.