Humans distinguish the Ages by the development of new groundbreaking technologies. Each Age brings the name of the material leading the technology evolution: stone, bronze and iron. Today we are in the silicon age (the second most abundant material on Earth), which made the information and communication technology revolution possible. Maybe we were coming from the plastic age. For sure we are moving into the graphene age. We know that the Moore’s law, the evidence about the growth of power of calculation of modern transistors is about to collapse. Why graphene? Because it’s the material of “superlatives”. Every time a lab investigates its properties, we discover it is by far the best in doing or being something. It is the thinnest and lightest material ever, it’s the strongest (and remains flexible), it’s only surface (as it is made of only one layer of carbon atoms) and it’s transparent, it’s the best thermal conductor, one of the best electrical conductors, nothing can pass it through a part water, it’s stretchable and bendable, etc.…
It’s important because these properties are all in one material and when combined together, the exploration can open to the creation of incredible solutions. I don’t want to stress the properties of graphene, which are listed on dedicated websites, but you also have to take into account that its element (carbon) is the 4th most abundant on the planet and recently scientists have developed reliable processes to mass produce it. We will never run out of this resource and never have to fight to get it, but why I am talking of a new Age? Isn’t it a bit exaggerated? In the end, graphene theory is around since the ’60 and the pioneers, the Manchester researchers Geim and Novoselov received the Nobel Prize in 2004, what happened up to today so that a material contained in a pencil is so revolutionary?
In 2013, the European Union made a €1 billion grant to be used for research into potential graphene applications. There is a roadmap and we expect this huge amount of money will lead to real answers to some crucial issues of humankind. Graphene can help to solve issues like water scarcity, pollution, lack of energy. It can change completely our approach to healthcare and replace silicon transistors opening a new era of fast communications. Graphene is not going to impact only technology sectors, but will profoundly change society. That’s why I’m talking about a new Age.
WATER: it’s devilish that the world population does not have enough water, when more than 70% of the surface of the planet is covered by water. But it’s salty. MIT minds have a plan for a graphene filter covered in tiny holes just big enough to let water through and small enough to keep salt out, making salt water safe for consumption. Desalination usually requires a huge quantity of energy, making the process inefficient and expensive, and the result is that a billion people around the world lack regular access to clean water. Graphene filters are more efficient because at atomic level there’s less friction loss when you push seawater through them. Scientists at some point will produce at reasonable cost graphene sheets with pores of 0.8 nanometers, so the material will become applicable and competitive with existing solutions. Water everywhere.
POLLUTION: it would be quite ironic to state that carbon is at the origin of pollution and graphene (which is made of carbon atoms) could be the solution. It might be both a direct and indirect solution. Direct because, as seen with desalination, it can be used to create efficient filters. Indirect, because when it replaces silicon and other materials, it will help reduce heat waste and, in general, energy demand to produce them. Scientists at Rice University say graphene oxide causes radioactive material to “clump” out of water, mostly thanks to their large surface area; it does not mean the radioactive material becomes clean, just manageable in an easier way; why not cleaning radioactive waters around Fukushima?
CHARGING: Plug your phone in for five seconds and it would be all charged up. This short sentence should be enough to understand the potential of graphene batteries. Especially because there are several equipment more important than your smartphone, both at individual level (electric car for example) and industrial level. High-power graphene supercapacitors would make existing batteries obsolete. Again researchers at Rice University came out with a prediction that adding some boron atoms to the graphene structure would result in an ultrathin efficient flexible anode for lithium ion batteries. Graphene is not only being used for the electrodes of batteries, but itself is a good battery material for batteries which hold enormous power and charge within a few seconds. It’s also studied for the production of more efficient solar cells.
TRANSISTORS: will graphene replace silicon? If it can perform just as well with a lower energy demand than silicon, then the answer is yes. In 2013 researchers reported the creation of transistors printed on flexible plastic that operate at 25 gigahertz, sufficient for communications circuits and that can be fabricated at scale. Researchers at Plymouth University, Cambridge and Tohoku (Japan) Universities and Nokia Technologies have found that electrical signals transmitted at high frequencies through it do not lose energy. Every month there’s a new discovery and a subsequent improvement in this area. Some scientists are already imagining smaller and faster transistors in which silicon is replaced by graphene, taking computer devices even closer to the absolute limits of physics.
HEALTHCARE: scientists are experimenting graphene to manufacture bionic devices in living tissues that could be connected directly to your neurons. So people with spinal injuries, for example, could re-learn how to use their limbs or people with damaged eye bulbs (but visual chord still working) can view again thanks to an artificial retina made of graphene. But the medicine applications are many, like drug delivery, cancer therapy and creation of biosensors. If we want to keep this section simple and close to the reader, just think that graphene is foldable and made possible to create wearables that are applied on the skin and can monitor some body functionalities and even release drugs if necessary.
This where I started my quick investigation and I think the speech is simple and great at the same time. Mikael Fogelstrom: Graphene, from a layer of atoms to applications.
Final thoughts on Graphene
The Moore’s law is something than can be easily applied today to the reduction of the price of graphene (per square meter) or to the increase of patents related to graphene applications. There is a lot of hype around this material, which is apparently well justified by the great things that can be done with it. Researchers are also checking if and when graphene can be toxic for the human body (both in the short and long term) and we don’t have a final word on this topic yet. Assuming it’s not toxic, the potential applications are limited only by our imagination.
I think it’s extremely promising because it can help to answer crucial issues, like those described above, and seems to fit with current megatrends, mainly overpopulation and megacities, need of resources to feed the world and aging of population. Obviously the way we manage those items does not depend on graphene alone, but the development of super-materials, might be a super-real help. As usual, technology provides the tool, what are we going to do with it?