Scientists around the world are racing to find ways to produce and employ a new material that is flexible, stretchy, hundreds of time stronger than steel and just one atom thick. If they succeed, graphene could transform our world in ways as profound as the introduction of plastic, or even iron.
Graphene: a word to remember
A new material that has been in existence for less than a decade may hold the same promise that plastic did when it was first invented, or could even have the transformational power of iron when it replaced bronze as the metal used to build new civilizations.
Graphene was discovered as recently as 2004, and the scientists who isolated it received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. The nano-material is obsessing scientists, entrepreneurs and high-tech companies around the world, thanks to its amazing properties.
So what is graphene?
It is basically a layer of carbon only one atom thick. It has been estimated a stack of 3 million sheets of graphene would measure about 1 millimetre thick. It is stretchy and flexible yet extremely hard, and is hundreds of times stronger than steel. It’s a great conductor of electricity, and its melting point is above 3,000 degrees Celsius.
Manufacturing industries are currently working with some highly sophisticated materials such as titanium alloys, single-crystal materials and carbon fibres. These materials are continuously researched for higher heat resistance, flexibility and other characteristics. If graphene can deliver on its early promise, it could significantly advance the search for these properties. It could pave way for much lighter, thinner and stronger constructions and could potentially be used in anything from super-light aircraft to desalination plants and hyper-fast computers.
Graphene on the market
So far, the material remains extremely expensive to produce in other than research quantities, and no commercial products have yet come to market. But companies and nations all over the world are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in research. The European Commission made graphene a special project and has granted more than 1 billion US dollars to help fund a decade of research and development by leading research institutions and big businesses in 17 countries in Europe. (http://www.graphene-flagship.eu)
Integrating new materials into mass production can take decades. The invention of carbon fibre, for instance, dates back half a century. Rolls-Royce pushed to use carbon fibre in aircraft engine compressor blades in the 1960s, but the blades proved vulnerable to damage from bird impact, and the company’s plans were disrupted.
The first viable commercial graphene products are expected to be presented in 2015. They may be electronic devices from IBM, Nokia or Samsung, which are among companies racing to be the first to market. If they succeed, it would be an example of an exceptionally fast implementation from a major discovery to market.