Graphene may be the material of the future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 9:01pm

It's super strong, super slim and almost transparent, but why all the fuss about a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon?

After almost a decade of being talked up as a discovery that would change the world, the rush for "miracle material" graphene is about to begin. What happens next is down to science - or rather the industrialisation of scientific theory - but eventually we could see ultralight aircraft, flexible smartphones, paint that soaks up solar energy and even microsieves that can rid seawater of its salinity.

Single layers of graphene were first extracted from graphite in 2004 at the University of Manchester by Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim - both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in 2010. Graphene's properties mean it could become as important a material as plastics, silicon and steel.

"Graphene has been called a miracle material, and it has attracted a lot of research and private sector interest," says Philip Shapira, professor of innovation management and policy at University of Manchester Business School. "Numerous companies, large and small, around the world are working with graphene, and thousands of patent applications have been filed."

It's likely that graphene - said to be hundreds of times stronger than steel and able to conduct electricity at super high-speed - will be used in many gadgets, vehicles and constructions. "There seems to be at least six major clusters of potential applications of graphene," says Shapira. "Screens and displays; memory chips and electronic processors; biomedical devices and sensors; batteries; coatings, inks and fillers; and materials."

However, it's in display screens that graphene - which has yet to be produced in commercial quantities - could have the biggest initial impact. Put graphene in plastic and it provides strength; stronger plastics could be used to make ever lighter aircraft, wind turbines and satellites. A graphene layer either in or on plastic would also conduct electricity.

"We're targeting graphene as a transparent conductor," says Mike Banach, director of research at Plastic Logic, which is working with the Cambridge University Research Centre on Graphene to create flexible LCD and Oled screens for mobile devices. "It has fantastic potential for flexible electronics. To make a display you need several layers that have different functions - a graphene layer would allow things to be much more flexible."

Lightweight, bendable plastic screens that could stand being dropped could have myriad applications, but there's a way to go yet. "What's going to hold it back isn't the material's fantastic properties, but the ability to transition into a practical way of making devices from it," says Banach. "The work done at the graphene centre with practical processing should become generic throughout the industry no matter what it's used for."

Graphene could revolutionise computing and even usurp silicon. Scientists at the University of Manchester recently reported making graphene magnetic, thereby allowing the switchable on/off states that are so integral to electronics, making its future use in hard disks, memory chips and sensors probable.

"This work opens the doors for new magnetic devices that are atomically thin and can be easily controlled externally with the application of ordinary electric fields," says Professor Antonio Castro Neto, director of the Graphene Research Centre at the National University of Singapore, a co-author of a report on the material.

"The long-rumoured emergence of graphene chips may transform the tablet market once again, radically enhancing design, speed, resolution and memory," says Norm Johnston, chief digital officer at global Mindshare Worldwide.

Graphene could threaten silicon as the basis of future computing, but if Silicon Valley's days are numbered, the creation of a Graphene Valley is a way off. Shapira warns that, "major applications of graphene will take years to develop and commercialise".