Graphene: Wonder Material of the 21st Century

Stephen DeAngelis

May 16, 2014

If you haven’t ever watched “The Graduate,” the movie that launched Dustin Hoffman’s storied film career, you should. In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, Hoffman’s character, a recent college graduate, is given advice about his future in one word: “plastics.” You can watch that scene below.

Were that scene filmed today, the word for the future would be “graphene” not “plastics.” Nick Bilton calls graphene “the wonder material” and Clive Cookson labels it “the first wonder material of the 21st century.” What is graphene? “Graphene,” writes Cookson, “is a sheet of carbon, only one atom thick but extending indefinitely in two dimensions. Its properties encompass an astonishing range of superlatives, including better electrical and thermal conductivity, mechanical strength and optical purity than any other material.” [“Graphene: Faster, stronger, bendier,” by Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 27 January 2013] Cookson’s article is accompanied by an interactive graphic explaining how graphene is made. Michael Andronico adds, “The future of technology could hinge on a single material. The industry is buzzing over the potential of graphene, which is the strongest, slimmest and most malleable material in known existence. Graphene, which is a form of carbon, could change the way our devices look, feel, perform and even interact with our bodies.” [“5 Reasons Graphene Will Change Your Gadgets Forever, NBC News, 15 April 2014] Bilton agrees, “Graphene could change the electronics industry, ushering in flexible devices, supercharged quantum computers, electronic clothing and computers that can interface with the cells in your body.” [“Bend It, Charge It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Material of Tomorrow,” New York Times, 13 April 2014]

In a post about quantum computing, I reported that researchers have discovered that graphene is a “fault tolerant” material that can help reduce the fragility of quantum computing systems. Tina Casey reports, “An international team of researchers based at MIT has figured out how to make the edges of the two-dimensional wonder material graphene behave like one-dimensional electronic wires. I know, right? To ice the cake, the edges don’t have to be perfectly formed. They can be irregular or ‘dirty’ and those electrons would still go zipping along in the right direction. In terms of quantum computers, that’s an important advantage for graphene. … Graphene is cheap compared to other materials with quantum computer potential but it is notoriously difficult to fabricate perfect examples in bulk, so if a measure of imperfection does not interfere with its efficiency, finding applications for it would be that much more likely.” [“Dirty Or Clean, Graphene Could Make A Nice Little Quantum Computer,” CleanTechnica, 23 December 2013] Casey calls graphene “the nanomaterial of the new millennium.”

Since quantum computing might not affect the quality of your life in the near future, you might be more interested to know that graphene-based batteries could charge your devices’ batteries much faster than they charge today. Grant Banks reports, “A breakthrough in supercapacitor performance has been achieved with the development of a device that can store as much energy as a battery while recharging in seconds. The graphene-based supercapacitor being developed in the U.S. by researchers at Nanotek Instruments can store as much energy per unit mass as nickel metal hydride batteries and could one day be used to help deliver almost instant charging to recharge mobile phones, digital cameras or micro electric vehicles.” [“Graphene-based supercapacitor hits new energy storage high,” Gizmag, 7 December 2010]. Michael Andronico offers five good reasons that you should pay attention to graphene. They are:

1. It’s Stronger than steel — “Graphene should take durability to the next level. The material is purportedly 200 times stronger than steel. According to the American Chemical Society, graphene achieves this strength because its carbon atoms are arranged in two-dimensional sheets.”

2. It’s Flexible like Rubber — “Researchers at Columbia University told the The New York Times that graphene could stretch by 20 percent. In other words, it’s pliable just like rubber. Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology has been experimenting with graphene transistors, which would allow for easy production of flexible displays on both wearable devices and handsets. Graphene is also resistant to water, so the material could potentially usher in a new generation of waterproof devices whose chassis may not need to be sealed like today’s devices.”

3. It Could Help Produce the Lightest, Thinnest Devices Ever — “According to a study from the American Chemical Society, graphene is thin enough [that one ounce of it could] stretch over 28 football fields. The material holds a ton of tech potential, as we could someday see paper-thin smartphones and tablets that you can fold up when not in use.”

4. It could Help Create Incredible Battery Life — “Graphene will likely influence not just how our devices look, but how long they last. Northwestern University researchers built a battery made of graphene and silicon, which supposedly lasted over a week on a single charge and only took 15 minutes to juice up. If graphene goes mainstream, you could possibly leave your smartphone charger home when traveling.”

5. It could Interact with Your Body — “According to Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan at the University of Manchester, graphene has the potential to interact with your biological systems. This would take today’s fitness-tracking tech to all new heights, as graphene sensors could possibly scan your nervous system or ‘talk to your cells,’ according to the Times.”

Bilton points out that graphene was discovered a decade ago. So why is the hype over graphene growing? Bilton explains, “It started to gain attention in 2010 when two physicists at the University of Manchester were awarded the Nobel Prize for their experiments with it. More recently, researchers have zeroed in on how to commercially produce graphene.” Andronico adds, “With Samsung, Nokia, SanDisk and IBM investigating uses for graphene (along with universities), we could soon see a host of exciting new devices that are stronger, lighter and cheaper for manufacturers and consumer alike.” Dr. Vijayaraghavan told Bilton, “Graphene is one of the few materials in the world that is transparent, conductive and flexible — all at the same time. All of these properties together are extremely rare to find in one material.” In other words, by almost all measures, graphene is indeed a wonder material. You can watch an interesting video about graphene by clicking on the following link. “So forget plastics,” Bilton writes. “There’s a great future in graphene. Think about it.”