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Graphene: the “miracle material” that will change the world

Graphene is a layer of carbon one atom wide yet stronger than steel. It could ultimately revolutionise a vast array of industries, says Ben Judge.

In the past few years you may have heard about graphene, the “miracle material” that will revolutionise everything from bulletproof vests and computer chips to spaceships and water filters. You will certainly be hearing a lot more about it over the next few years. 

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, a form of carbon derived from the graphite you can find in your bog-standard pencil. The substance was first isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, professors at the University of Manchester.  The pair were trying to construct a transistor with graphite, a process that entailed making the sheets of graphite thinner and thinner. 

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They placed sticky tape on a pencil lead and peeled off a layer of graphite. They repeated the peeling process until the graphite was one atom thick, then dissolved the tape away, leaving graphene. The discovery earned Geim and Novoselov the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.

An unusually versatile material...

Despite being a million times thinner than a human hair, graphene is 200 times stronger than steel. It is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, making it suitable for electronic circuits; it is also extremely flexible, transparent, and can be made water resistant. 

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So expectations are high. And, clearly, there could be big profits in the offing for the company that could harness all these marvellous qualities. So there is a great deal of money going into researching how best to commercialise graphene. 

The EU’s Graphene Flagship project, launched in 2013, aims to bring together industrial and academic researchers from 23 countries to “take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the space of ten years”. It reckons the market is worth around €100m a year now, a figure that could climb to €550m by 2025. 

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China is also throwing its weight behind the research, with the Beijing Graphene Research Institute being founded in 2018. According to Nanowerk.com, which reports on the nanotechnology sector, two thirds of the 31,000 patents that had been granted in the area of graphene production by 2018 went to China. 

... with a huge range of applications

Graphene’s flexibility, transparency, durability and conductivity means it can be used for a vast array of purposes. One is touchscreens: the University of Sussex has developed a flexible screen using graphene and silver nanowires that could replace the current brittle screens. 

Graphene also has potential in batteries, replacing current lithium-ion ones. Graphene batteries could be smaller, lighter, store more energy and charge up in a matter of seconds. In electronics, traditional silicon-based chips are reaching the limits of what they can do. Their size and conductivity tempers the speeds at which they can operate. Graphene chips can be made much smaller and conduct both heat and electricity much faster. 

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Not only would a graphene-based integrated circuit chip use less power, it could run up to 1,000 times faster, according to researchers  from Northwestern University, The University of Texas, University of Illinois, and University of Central Florida.

The industries adopting graphene

Graphene’s uses are no longer merely theoretical. It is being incorporated into products already. Its extremely low-friction properties mean it is ideal for use in aerospace components that could be less than half the weight of carbon-fibre composites. 

Airbus and partners Aernnova and Grupo Antolin-Ingenieria have integrated the material into the leading edge of the tail on the new Airbus A350. As well as being lighter – thus saving fuel – graphene enhances composites’ ability to deal with mechanical and thermal stress, which is important in a component subject to extremes of temperature and pressure.

Graphene composite materials have also been incorporated into bulletproof materials. Durham-based Graphene Composites has developed armour-plating small and light enough to be put into a rucksack and a bulletproof curtain for use in war-torn areas. 

It also proposes harnessing power from lightning strikes via graphene-composite conductor cables held aloft by weather balloons. That will almost certainly be a commercial non-starter, but demonstrates the range of uses it could theoretically be put to. 

A big bump in the road

So much for the good news. Now for some of the bad. For all its miraculous properties and the fact that you can make it with the contents of any schoolchild’s pencil case, it is proving extremely difficult to produce economically in commercial quantities; researchers have struggled to make more than a few grams. Basing a revolutionary industry on peeling off pencil lead with Sellotape isn’t going to work. So the race is on to produce large quantities of affordable, high-quality graphene. 

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