The world’s first 2D material – graphene – has been the subject of much research since it was first isolated at The University of Manchester in 2004, several decades after it was first discovered. It’s sort of the remarkable little cousin of graphite, better known as “pencil lead,” which is made from stacked layers of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms. Isolate just one of those layers, and you have graphene.
It’s been called a “wonder material” thanks to its many unique properties. It’s ultra-lightweight, highly elastic, extremely flexible and so thin (a single atom in thickness, or one million times narrower than the diameter of a human hair) as to be nearly transparent – and yet it’s 200 times stronger than steel and the most impermeable material ever discovered. It’s also an exceptional conductor of both heat and electricity.
Here’s a list of 13 areas where this wonder material is being put to wondrous use:
- Creating ultra-fast computers: Thanks to the material’s 2D structure, electrons can move through it at virtually the speed of light. Computers based on graphene transistors have the potential to be thousands of times faster than their silicon-based counterparts.
- Building better batteries: Graphene can impart better charging times, conductivity, cycle durability, storage capacity – and the list goes on. This is true not only for graphene batteries, but also for traditional lithium-ion batteries that incorporate the material.
- Transforming transportation: Graphene-based composite materials could be incorporated into cars and aircraft, making them not only lightweight but also more fuel-efficient, stronger and safer.
- Energizing electric vehicles: While using graphene batteries could drastically improve the efficiency and driving range of EVs, an even bigger revolution could come building graphene-based supercapacitor film into the body of the vehicles themselves: the need for batteries could potentially be eliminated altogether.
- Weaving washable wearables: Graphene inks can print electronic circuits onto polyester fabrics, which opens potential applications for everything from fashion to health monitors to energy harvesting.
- Constructing for sustainability: Incorporating graphene into concrete has made it twice as strong, while producing it offers only half of the traditional carbon footprint.
- Preventing infection and reducing rejection: A vertical layer of graphene added to a medical implant can literally slice apart microbial invaders.
- Solving the growing water crisis: Graphene membranes with nanometer-sized pores have been developed for desalinating seawater and purifying drinking water.
- Cleaning up oil spills: Graphene aerogels are three-dimensional, lighter-than-air spongy structures that can soak up 900 times their own weight.
- Turning surfaces into power sources: Researchers have developed flexible, transparent solar cells that could be deployed on surfaces all around us.
- Aiding firefighting: Wallpaper incorporating graphene-based ink can detect fire and automatically trigger an alarm.
- Saving lives: Dual layers of graphene can be used to form a material called diamene, which upon impact transforms from flexible to hard and stiff as a diamond. One possible application: ultralight bullet-proof film. Highly-sensitive, graphene-based liquid sensors can also be used to track babies’ heart and breathing rates to help prevent crib death.
- Applications straight out of science-fiction: Flat lenses made from gold covered with graphene can control and bend light – making it theoretically possibility to produce an “invisibility cloak.”
While some of graphene’s most promising uses still have technological hurdles to overcome. One significant challenge, for instance, is the difficulty of producing it at industrial scale – not surprising considering the stick-to-it-iveness of the "Scotch tape method" used to first produce the material, which is still used today. But the level of interest in its potential is strong; more than thirteen thousand graphene-related patents have been filed, so our list of 13 is just the tip of the iceberg.
You can learn more at The University of Manchester’s graphene applications page, or keep tabs on the homepage of the Graphene Flagship – a European joint research project devoted to bring graphene out of the lab and into society.