Guest blog entry by Colin Maxwell, a marketing intern at CSOFT.
Imagine a material with a honeycomb structure a single atom thick, hundreds of times stronger than steel and capable of conducting heat and electricity faster than anything else on Earth. This miraculous material is graphene, a 2-dimensional carbon allotrope with near limitless applications that has thus far failed to become commercially viable due to the difficulty of its manufacture.
Graphene was first produced in 2002 when Andre Geim, a researcher at the University of Manchester, challenged a PhD student to shave a piece of graphite (the stuff at the center of your pencil) down to as few layers as possible. The student managed to produce a piece 1000 atoms thick but Geim wasn’t satisfied; he wanted to get a lot lower. So he turned to an unlikely ally: adhesive tape. Applying tape to a graphite block, he pulled away a sliver of graphite. Then, he applied a second strip of tape and pulled away an even thinner piece of graphite. Then, he did it again and again and again, repeating the process until he had a flake of graphite just 10 atoms thin. At this thickness (or thinness) the graphite began to display bizarre electrical properties that would typically only be found in multi-million dollar particle accelerators where electrons travel at close to the speed of light. Geim, in partnership with his colleague, Kostya Novoselov, had his paper, “Electric Field Effect in Atomically Thin Carbon Films,” published in 2004, and research into the wonder material exploded. By 2005, the first layers of graphene – graphite just one atom thick – were isolated and in 2010 Geim and Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.
The potential uses of graphene are innumerable but here are a few that have the tech-world absolutely ebullient:
- Terabit uploads and downloads. That’s 108 DVD quality movies in one second.
- A sensationally speedy battery charger. Plug in your phone or, even more exciting, your electric car, count to 10, and you’ve got a fully charged battery.
- Ultra pure water. Researchers at MIT have a design for graphene sheets with holes just large enough for water molecules but too small for anything else.
- Solar paint. University of Manchester scientists have combined graphene with a transition metal to produce paint that absorbs sunlight and produces electricity at the same rate as a solar panel.
- Super light, super strong plastics. Plastics mixed with graphene could replace metal in the aerospace and automotive industries leading to faster, safer transportation.
The difficulty of synthesizing graphene, though, has left it largely confined to the lab. Up to now, the most popular method of production was Chemical Vapor Deposition, a complex, expensive process whereby a gaseous mixture is pumped over platinum, nickel, or titanium carbide, leaving behind a graphene film, often riddled with impurities that diminish its positive properties. That is no longer the case.
Last week, Samsung announced that it had, in conjunction with South Korea’s Sungkyungkwan University, made a breakthrough in graphene production by growing it on layers of specially treated germanium. The graphene and germanium are only weakly attached, allowing the graphene to be pulled off and the germanium to be reused. This means that graphene can finally be produced profitably, ushering in an age of incredible opportunity for manufacturers and unprecedented innovation in consumer electronics, with the stuff of science fiction jetting from the far-flung future and into everyday use.
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