Graphene | Flexible Like Plastic, Harder Than Diamond

The future of light, strong and cheap is now

Micro-thin graphene electronics (Photo: Ji Hye Hong)

Science frequently works hand-in-hand with industry to find bigger, better, faster ways of improving production processes and making products better. For any country, there’s a certain pride that goes along with making a breakthrough scientific discovery that changes the face of an industry.

Make it cheaper, please

Frequently, a key consideration in innovation is money.  Part of making something better is making it cheaper to produce without sacrificing quality. Considering the difficult economy as it currently stands, saving money wherever possible is good.  On a personal level, we can use a payday loan or cash advance to save us the bumps and bruises of late fees. In the world of industry, discoveries like graphene may be the ticket to major technological breakthroughs.

Staying ahead of Moore’s Law

Robert Boyd reports for McClatchy at that graphene is made from a sheet of carbon that’s one atom thick – but it’s stronger than diamond and conducts electricity “100 times faster than the silicon in computer chips.” Understandably, physicists, electronics engineers and chemists are salivating over the possibilities. The applications for increasing the power of personal computers would be tremendous.

The thinnest and the strongest

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“It is the thinnest known material in the universe, and the strongest ever measured,” wrote University of Manchester physicist Andre Geim in Science. Not only that, but it doesn’t take much to do big jobs. According to graphene researcher Rod Ruoff of the University of Texas, “A few grams could cover a football field.” Just so you know, one gram equals 1/30 of an ounce.

That’s carbon, baby

Graphene is pure carbon, just like diamond. It looks like honeycomb under an electron microscope, an indication of its structural integrity. Yet you can bend it and fold it, so it’s easy to handle. Imagine a pencil. Did you know the lead (which is not actually lead) is actually made of stacks of graphite layers? The bonds that hold them together in your pencil are weak, however, so when you write, the layers flake off onto the paper as the dark marks. When the lead breaks or you sharpen the pencil, the lead only breaks because the layers of graphene aren’t stuck together.

How can graphene be used?

This is where the practical applications for industry come in. Graphene can be used to create screens that won’t break; small, light solar cells and other energy-storage devices; ultra-light parts for cell phones; and, ultimately, high-speed computer chips. Potential graphene applications include touch screens, solar cells, energy storage devices, cell phones and, eventually, high-speed computer chips. That last application is years away, and the silicon industry is backed by billions of dollars, so I don’t think silicon computer chips will be replaced quickly.

Research is on the move

Government scientists, various university labs, big companies like IBM and even start-ups are hard at work to discover ways that graphene can be used. Ruoff founded Graphene Energy, a renewable energy company that is very interested in storing the energy captured by solar cells and even the heat from automobile brakes. The Pentagon is spending $22 million in their research to figure out how quickly we can start using the substance in computer chips and transistors.

The “Scotch Tape technique”

Graphene as it would appear under an electron microscope

That used to be the only way scientists knew to make graphene. They’d mount graphite on sticky tape and separate a single layer by pulling the tape away. But now, graphene can be made on a base of nickel, copper or silicon. After combining, the base is scraped off. This is a much more efficient method than the tape method, according to scientists like Geim, who discovered graphene about five years ago. It may have also advanced graphene research by years in just a short period of time.

Here come the hybrids

“I’m confident there will be many commercial applications,” Ruoff said. “We will begin to see hybrid devices – mostly made from silicon, but with a critical part of the device being graphene – in niche applications.”

But here’s what I want to know

If it’s true that graphene can also be used for car parts – making my vehicle lighter – I’m all for it because I’ll get better gas mileage and won’t need a payday loan or cash advance to fill the tank so often.

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