The Two-Dimensional Diamond That’s Set to Turn Your World Upside Down
Here are a few Monday riddles for you:
What space-age material is two hundred times stronger than structural steel?
What conducts electricity so insanely quickly that researchers at IBM see ‘no intrinsic limits into how fast it can go’?
And which new substance is the subject of three thousand new research projects, and has just been given a one billion Euro research investment from the European Commission?
Amazingly, the answer is the same for all three questions…
I’m talking about graphene.
This is the brand new material that the world of science is salivating over.
Graphene is completely revolutionising the world of material science, even more than the arrival of plastics did last century. The unparalleled strength and conductivity of graphene make the possibilities so much more tantalising than plastics ever could have.
If this is the first you’ve heard of it, let me explain…
Graphene is produced from graphite, and is a two dimensional sheet of carbon atoms arranged hexagonally. At an atomic level it looks like chicken wire:
This simple arrangement of atoms is remarkably powerful, because it is essentially a diamond in two dimensions. Not only that, but this one-atom-thick ‘sheet’ of graphene is completely invisible, yet it so strong is will support a newborn baby’s weight.
That’s truly remarkable. But now imagine you made a sheet of graphene the thickness of gladwrap. It would be so ridiculously strong, that in the words of Professor James Hone at Columbia University, ‘It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through it.’
I’d pay good money to see an elephant balancing on a pencil, let alone on a sheet of graphene!
Clearly graphene is set to turn the world of engineering on its head. Lighter, stronger parts would obviously be useful in aircraft, for example. Really at this stage, it’s just the imagination holding back graphene’s potential applications.
But it gets stranger.
This material also heals itself.
That popular bedtime-read, Mesoscale and Nanoscale Physics reported that scientists at Manchester University have proven that holes in graphene sheets completely fill up, without trace, when carbon atoms are sprayed at it. The loose carbon atoms are just absorbed, and line up perfectly in new hexagons. Now THAT is just plain bizarre.
A small rip in a soldier’s bulletproof graphene-jacket during battle?
Easy! Just spray it with Graph-plugTM to quickly close it up! (OK, I made that up.)
And maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but the point is this: we just don’t know how graphene will change our world, but we can be sure that it will.
Its physical properties set it apart, but its electrical properties really take the cake.
Electrons move so freely across the matrix of hexagons, that it could be used to make microprocessors that are many time faster than conventional silicon based ones.
This has already been done by IBM. Their first attempt resulted in a transistor running at 150 GHz. The fastest silicon peer runs at 40GHz. Not bad for a first attempt! And they see no ceiling in how much faster they can go with future attempts. It seems like computers are going to be getting much, much faster.
A combination of the tough, conductive properties of graphene make it perfect for touch-screens on mobile phones.
Samsung sees it going well beyond just replacing this conventional touch-screen technology though, to become something much bigger. They have already developed a 25-inch graphene touch-screen. Even more remarkable, it can be folded up.
Imagine a high powered computer you can fold up and stick in your wallet. It sounds crazy, but it may not be that far away.
We already knew Graphite is excellent in lithium ion batteries, but now graphene is proving to be even better.
Taking it one step further researchers now expect graphene can be used to make ultra-capacitors which hold as much charge as a lithium ion battery, but can be charged in minutes. That would really shake up the electric car market, which is being held back by very long charge times for vehicles.
The list goes on, and keeps growing. Graphite seems set to shake up the world of solar energy as well. The medical sector should benefit too as graphene can be used to enhance medical tests.
You can rest assured that in the next fewyears, graphene will become a household word. This is one of the stories I’ll continue to follow. And you can follow me and my thoughts on it (along with a bunch of other things) on my free Google plus page.
Readers of Diggers and Drillers would know I tipped a graphite stock last May. It’s now up 230% to become the world’s largest graphite company. It’s developed a resource larger than all the others combined, and is set to get much bigger yet.
The reason I went for graphite last year was not graphene – rather it was more about growing demand for graphite from the lithium ion battery industry.
At the time I didn’t see that graphene would generate any commercial demand for graphite. Even though graphene was clearly very exciting, it was a sideshow to the graphite market.
But over the last year that has started to change rapidly. US manufacturers can now produce meaningful quantities of high quality graphene.
The Nobel Prize in physics recently went to graphene pioneers including Professor Andre Geim. And he now reckons graphene products will be commercially available within a few years.
At the current speed that the research – and resulting progress – is moving, it won’t be long before graphene becomes a serious source of demand for what is already a ridiculously tight graphite market.
Make no mistake this is the start of something big. Quality graphite deposits already looked like a good investment – but they just got a whole load better.
Dr Alex Cowie
Editor, Diggers & Drillers
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