A couple of years ago, we alerted you in this space to the impending arrival of the Graphene Age. Graphene is a molecular miracle, gleaned from inexpensive graphite, with the potential to revolutionize just about every product we make and use in our everyday lives.
A hexagonal honeycomb lattice of carbon atoms arranged in a microscopic, two-dimensional layer, graphene is thin enough to stretch over 28 football fields, according to a study by the American Chemical Society. But supreme flexibility is not the most astounding attribute of graphene: the ultra-thin material is said to be 200 times stronger than steel; it’s 20 times stronger—and six times lighter–than the strongest natural material on Earth, diamond.
Graphene also is water-resistant and virtually transparent, but its remarkable powers don’t stop there. The material is said to be an excellent conductor of heat and electricity—a graphene/silicon battery created by researchers at Northwestern University reportedly took only 15 minutes to charge and held a single charge for more than a week. And scientists say the molecular wonder can safely interact with biological systems, like plants and humans.
Now comes news of a bevy of products made with graphene that are about to enter the global marketplace or be deployed in advanced scientific and medical applications. Here are three examples:
- Smartphones you can wrap around your wrist. Moxi, a small startup based in China, says it’s ready to introduce a smartphone with a flexible touchscreen (made from graphene) that still functions when looped and worn like a watch or a bracelet. It also functions when it’s stretched flat, like a normal smartphone. Moxi says it’s produced a prototype and plans to put 100.000 units on sale in China by the end of the year, according to a report in CNNMoney.com. However, there’s one significant glitch with the new unit: thus far, the company can only produce a black-and-white display; the color touchscreen may not be ready until 2018. The initial versions are expected to sell for about 5,000 yuan ($760) each in China. The company’s name—pronounced “mou-she”—is short for graphene in Chinese. Global tech players, including Samsung and LG, also have flexible touchscreens made from graphene in development, according to reports. Apple received a patent last year for a “flexible electronic device;” the company’s patent application included two dozen drawings illustrating how such a device could be warped into different shapes. Analysts say the major challenge of applying graphene to electronic devices is building the computing power and functionality of existing devices into the ultra-thin membranes.
- Antibiotics. Graphene oxide, a form of graphene with molecular oxygen incorporated into it, wraps around bacteria, puncturing its membrane. Bacteria cannot survive or reproduce when their membranes are burst. Scientists are experimenting with graphene-coated surgical tools that could kill bacteria, reducing the need for standard antibiotics and decreasing the rates of post-operative infections. The latest breakthroughs in medical applications of graphene recently were presented at the annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Los Angeles.
- Camera lenses. Researchers at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology are developing a billionth-of-a-meter-thick flat optical lens made from graphene. The ultra-light-weight lenses could dramatically decrease the cost of launching surveillance satellites into orbit. According to a paper published in Nature Communications, graphene lenses provide a breaktrhough in the diffraction limit, allowing the focus to narrow down to half a wavelength of light. Researchers reportedly have developed a 3-D printer that can spray graphene oxide solution onto a surface to create a lens 300 times thinner than a sheet of paper, with the ability to focus on objects as small as 200 nanometers long at wavelengths ranging from visible to near infrared.
In 1962, Dr. Hanns-Peter Boehm, a German chemist, coined the term graphene—applying the common chemical suffix -ene to graphite—in a research paper describing single-layer carbon foils. The first graphene materials emerged in 1987 when graphene sheets were integrated into crystalline compounds and the material was studied in early research on carbon nanotubes. The big breakthrough occurred in 2004, when researchers in the U.K. working on carbon nanotubes discovered that high-quality graphene could be isolated using a relatively easy chemical process. In 2010, Andre Gelm and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their experiments with two-dimensional graphene.
The race is on to mass-produce graphene (with a process known as chemical vapor disposition, which isolates the atoms from graphite) and use it in commercial applications. While the commercial free-for-all to bring graphene products to market unfolds, a predictable geopolitical scrum over the raw materials for graphene also may be developing. Half of the world’s graphite deposits are in China. The Chinese government in recent years has reserved “for domestic use” increasing quantities of rare earth metals like tungsten and molybdenum (critical for a variety of aerospace components). The PRC is indicating it may take the same approach with graphite.
We’ll reiterate the suggestion we made in our original post on this subject: save any old pencils lying around in desk drawers. There’s black gold in those chewed-up stubs.