Supercharged: Why Graphene is the New “It” Material

Carbon nanotubes are so 2012.

Keep in mind, this is coming from the same guy who reported with genuine wonderment about MIT’s drawable-nanotubes all the way back in November. Such is the nature of writing at the speed of Moore.

Now it seems graphene has become the new it material of 2013, making its way into conceptual designs and research the world over. And while Europe can’t throw money at graphene research fast enough, early applications are popping up like spring daisies.

Before getting into those, a quick explanation of what graphene actually is may prove useful for the uninitiated. A carbon substance, graphene is made unique not by its hexagonal honeycomb lattice structure, but by its modest thickness – a single atom.

Atom-thick carbon monolayers can be manipulated into a variety of structures, be it rolled nanotubes or multiple layers stacked as graphite. It also happens to be one of the strongest materials ever tested.

But the property most researchers are honing in on is the conductivity of graphene. With a resistance less than silver (the lowest previous known), electrons move through it like they have no mass. And now that you’re an expert, let’s get back to the fascinating uses researchers are finding for the coolest thing since the Kelvin scale.

First up, the future of flash. Several different labs are working on the development of next-generation flash memory incorporating graphene layers. Recently, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and UCLA have made headlines for their promising research.

Both have demonstrated the advantages of integrating graphene with conventional MOS semiconductors, including low power consumption and high storage capacities. Sidestepping the reduction of transistor size, the possibility of terabit storage on your phone may be just around the corner.

Meanwhile, the good people at Berkeley took a slightly more aural (and layman-accessible) approach. They’ve created the world’s first graphene speaker, replacing the standard paper diaphragm with a 30nm-thick graphene cone. And wouldn’t you know it? Initial tests are more than encouraging. Frequency response is excellent, power consumption is significantly reduced, and the possibility of future ravers experiencing a whole new kind of stomach-churning volume is looking very good.

Not quite convinced of the wonder material? Of the hundreds of applications underway, possibly the most exciting is in the solar industry.

Silvija Gradečak at MIT is convinced the future of the solar cell lies with graphene. Only slightly less efficient than silicon, the advantages lie in graphene’s (scaled) affordability and flexibility. The abridged version: soon you may see solar cells easily and cheaply applied to any surface with access to direct sunlight. This isn’t a step forward in renewable energy reliance; it’s a world-record long jump.

And we’re just scratching the surface here. Also based out of UCLA, Richard Kaner and Maher El-Kady have shown the quick charging, high-capacity possibilities of graphene supercapacitors. Granted, the benefit of charging your cell phone in thirty seconds is one of efficiency. But charging your Model S in just a couple minutes? That’s serious evolution.

Based solely on the buzz of recently published papers and the EU’s substantial wager, many are thinking graphene will soon be responsible for the majority of hardware innovation in the future. Whether you agree or not, the greatest part about scientific advancement is just that – it doesn’t matter what you think. Science will still happen.

Image: Graphene by U.S. Army Materiel Command on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This entry was posted in Advanced Manufacturing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s