Imagine a material mined from the earth that is stronger than steel, harder than diamonds but as flexible and transparent as saran wrap, with a higher intrinsic mobility than silicon, 100 times more conductive than Copper and comes “packaged” as a thin sheet only 1 atom thick that you can actually see with the naked eye and form into any shape you want. This is Graphene, a form of Graphite being hailed as the miracle material and is breaking through historical scientific limits changing the way we live.
Although comprised of simple elemental Carbon, the basis of all known life on earth, Graphene as a material is very new. It was discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester who went on to win the Noble Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work in isolating and characterizing Graphene. They delaminated a graphite flake to its lowest common denominator; an atomic scale, transparent, conductive sheet of carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal rings much like that of chicken wire. This perfect atomic lattice of Carbon has been creating tremendous buzz among physicists, chemists, doctors, electronic engineers and businesses from around the world ever since. This is a truly remarkable material with many exciting revolutionary applications.
Characteristics & Developing Applications
Graphene’s structure is what gives it unique optical, thermal, mechanical and electrical properties. It is the thinnest and lightest known material in the universe and the strongest ever measured. This is a sheet of atoms that you can see and pick up and yet it would take the weight of an elephant concentrated on the tip of a pencil to break through it.
Despite its strength, it's as flexible as plastic wrap and can be stretched up to 20%, bent, folded or rolled up like a scroll and yet it is stronger and harder than diamonds. It is also highly transparent, absorbing only 2.3% of light but against a sheet of paper, you can actually see it as a single layer of atoms with the naked eye. Graphene-based LED screens would allow you to roll up your giant TV, take it to a friend’s house, and hang it on the wall to watch the Super Bowl.
In terms of density, mobility, and electricity, Graphene has the highest current density (a million times that of copper) at room temperature; the highest intrinsic mobility (100 times more than in silicon); and conducts electricity in the limit of no electrons. This means that it can carry more electricity, faster, and with more precision than any other material. It also has no band gap (the gap between the energy of an electron when it is bound to an atom and the so called conduction band, where it is free to move around). This makes Graphene a wonderful candidate for use in highly efficient photovoltaic (PV) cells.
Graphene’s hexagonal lattice has the longest “mean free path” of any known material (the distance an electron can travel freely without bumping into anything or having its path disrupted by scattering; the things that induce resistance). When the mean free path is longer than the dimensions of the material, you get ballistic transport. In Graphene, the mean free transport is in the order of 65 microns – long enough that electric components could be made that would operate at ambient temperatures with virtually no resistance. This is similar to superconductivity but at room temperature.
Graphene can also be combined with other materials to engineer new ones on demand to meet the special needs of different industries. Since its discovery in 2004 there has been an explosion of Graphene-based research. Tens of billions of dollars are currently being spent globally at university laboratories and in corporate research and development facilities in three principal sectors, namely: Consumer Electronics, Communications, Computing Devices, Industrial Materials, Military/Security and Biotech.
The following lists some of the anticipated Graphene applications given the supply of its parent Flake Graphite is available in sufficient quantities and required high purities (>99.5%):
- Flexible, lightweight, printed-on fabric solar cells...i.e. jogger’s t-shirts powering cell phones, MP3 players and GPS units (pictured on the right)
- Lithium-ion batteries: increasing the efficiency of electric batteries by use of graphene powder
- Fuel cells
Consumer Electronics and Computing Devices
- Replacing silicon in transistors to allow computers to run faster without overheating and at a microscopic scale
- Embedding the material in plastics to enable them to conduct electricity
- High-power, high frequency electronic devices
- Graphene nanoribbons could be a way to construct ballistic transistors (electronic devices developed for high sped integrated circuits that are smaller, quieter, have lower power requirements and higher speeds)
- Advancements in touch screens
- Stretchable electrodes
- RF applications
- Super capacitors capable of operating at room temperature
- Improved wireless communications; you’ll download hi-def video to your Smartphone in nanoseconds
- Graphene-based gas, liquid and bio sensors could sniff out dangerous molecules (pictured on the right)
- Protective clothing/gear/shields
- Invisibility cloaks to make soldiers, tanks, jeeps and aircraft disappear
Industrial and Consumer Materials
- Replacing carbon fibres in composite materials to make lighter aircraft and satellites: we will be able to launch satellites the size of skyscrapers that weigh less than your patio BBQ
- Antibacterial Graphene sheets can be integrated into leather and textiles to make shoes and clothing that never stink.
- Stiffer-stronger-lighter plastics
- Stronger wind turbines
- Anti-bacterial applications: hygiene products and leak-tight, plastic containers that keep food fresh for longer periods of time
- Transparent conductive coatings for solar cells and displays
- Replacement of rare and expensive metals like platinum and indium, performing the same tasks with greater efficiency at a fraction of the cost
- Improved conductivity of materials
- Better sports equipment
- Artificial membranes for separating two liquid reservoirs
- Efficient environmentally sound oil production
- Cancer detection and treatment, doctors will be able to use high doses of new drugs that are lethal to cancer cells without getting you sick or harming healthy cells
- Manufacturing of synthetic blood eliminating supply shortages and fears of infections and matching blood types
- Graphene-based transistor arrays combatable with living biological cells will pave the way for brain implants for combating Alzheimer’s with graphene electrodes implanted into patient’s brains; other graphene implants will target spinal cord injuries and even blindness; integration of prosthetics into a person’s nervous system, to enhance control; growth of human tissue extending the life of implanted devices from months to years
- New classes of drugs
- Stronger medical implants
- Nanogaps in graphene sheets may potentially provide a new technique for rapid DNA sequencing.
- Smart bandages
The Future of the Graphene Market
The Graphene market is expected to skyrocket through 2020. According to BCC Research's new report, "Graphene: Technologies, Applications, and Markets" (Report ID: AVM075A), the global graphene-based product market value will grow to $67 million in 2015, and $675.1 million in 2020. That's a 58.7% five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR). The commercial market for graphene-based products was essentially nonexistent 2009-2010, but BCC expects commercially significant graphene sales to crop up before 2015. Projected market increases for the anticipated greatest demand applications are as follows:
- Graphene-based capacitors: The largest product segment. 67.2% 5-year CAGR, from $26 million in 2015 to $340 million in 2020.
- Structured materials: Second-largest segment. 39.1% 5-yr CAGR, from $17.5 million in 2015 to $91 million in 2020.
- Graphene in displays: Shooting up from a negligible value in 2015, this segment will reach $43.8 million in 2020.
- Graphene-based photovoltaics
- Thermal management graphene products: 8.4% CAGR, from $15 million in 2015 to $22.5 million in 2020.
- Remaining graphene-using products will make up a $1 million industry in 2015, and should hit $142.8 million in 2020 (169.7% 5-yr CAGR).
Graphene hints at a world of electronics beyond silicon, unshackled from Moore’s Law and spreads tantalising rumours about room temperature quantum phenomena and life changing hope for transplant, cancer, and Alzheimer’s patients among so many others. Graphene will change the way we live. It provides a stable, practical and useful material which has, as of yet, no equal in nature, in science, or in manufactured applications.
Government and university laboratories, long-established companies such as IBM, and small start-ups are working at making graphene and turning it into useful and revolutionary products. The range of applications for the material is astonishing and the pace of development feverish.