In its simplest form, graphene is a single, thin substance derived from graphite. This 2D carbon allotrope is one of the most versatile compounds on earth. It’s incredibly light and remarkably strong. Apart from that, it’s one of the best conductors of electricity and heat, which means it can be it can be used in various applications. Also, graphene is transparent and flexible. It’s also impermeable to most liquids and gases. In fact, it appears as if it can excel in all areas.
So, how did this miraculous substance came into being? Well, humans have been using graphite for many decades. And for many years, scientists wondered whether they could isolate a single layer of graphite, and then examine its properties from a different perspective. Until then, this was just a mere theory, and most scientists believed it’s not achievable.
However, in 2004, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim of the University of Manchester discovered the first isolated graphene sample. You might think that they used some state-of-the-art equipment to extract the single layer of graphite. On the contrary, they only used something simple – a single roll of scotch tape. Their research was eventually published, and they were both awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their great discovery. Due to its remarkable properties, graphene has a wide range of applications. They include:
Graphene will definitely play a significant role in the world of bioengineering. However, before it can be used, some hurdles need to be overcome. According to current estimations, graphene will only become fully applicable in bioengineering from 2030. Before it can be used, scientists have to test various aspects concerning its compatibility. For instance, it has to undergo numerous clinical, regulatory and safety trials before approval. All these trials will consume a considerable amount of time. However, considering its great properties, it will significantly revolutionize this industry once it becomes fully operational. Considering that it offers high electrical conductivity, a larger surface area, as well as strength and thinness, it can be used to make efficient and fast bioelectric sensory devices, which are capable of monitoring a wide range of things in the body such as hemoglobin levels, glucose levels, cholesterol, as well as DNA sequencing. It might also be used as an anti-cancer treatment, due to its molecular composition. And due to its potential biocompatibility, graphene could also be used for tissue regeneration in the future. In short, it opens a whole world of bioengineering capabilities, once it passes the required approval processes.
Unlike in bioengineering where its use might take a long period, graphene is soon going to be commercially produced and used in optical electronics. It will be used to make items such as LCD screens, touch screens, organic lighting emitting diodes (OLEDs), and several others. Materials used in optical electronics must be capable of transmitting over 90% of light. Furthermore, they also need to have a high electrical conductivity as well as low resistance. The good news is that graphene excels in all these areas. As much as it’s almost completely transparent, it can transmit approximately 98% of its light.
As previously noted, this compound is highly conductive, which means it can work comfortably with numerous photoelectric systems such as LCD touchscreens for tablets, smartphones, as well as desktop computers. It can also be used to make screen panels for TVs. Indium tin oxide (ITO) is currently the most widely used compound in this industry. However, studies have shown that graphene can perform exceptionally better than ITO, even if in its current non-refined status. Also, graphene features high tensile strength as well as great flexibility, which means that it will soon take over ITO in all the above applications. You might also start seeing an increase in flexible electronic devices, once manufacturers start using it.
Graphene is light, stiff and strong. Currently, aeronautical engineers are already using carbon fiber in the manufacture of aircraft, since its light and strong. However, graphene is significantly stronger than carbon fiber. Apart from that, it’s also lighter by a mile. Due to its combination of such properties, it’s expected that graphene will eventually be used to create materials that can take the place of steel in aircraft manufacture, thus reducing their weight while improving their fuel efficiency and range. Also, due to its excellent electrical conductivity, graphene can also be used to as a coating material for aircrafts surfaces thus preventing electrical damage in the event of lightning. Aerospace engineers can also use the same coating to measure the stress rate, thus notifying the pilot whether the aircraft is safe to travel. Apart from that, it can also be used to make high-strength products such as body armor for various military applications, thanks to its lightweight nature and incredible strength.
Scientists and researchers are also considering using graphene in energy storage. As much as various areas in the electronics industry have significantly advanced over the last ten years or so, energy storage remains an issue. First, bigger batteries tend to have a greater storage capacity as compared to small ones. Second, most batteries lose stored energy, even when the device is not being used. The solution is to come up with an energy storage component, which operates like a supercapacitor, with the ability to serve both roles. And this is where graphene comes in. Currently, researchers are exploring ways of enhancing the capacity and capability of a lithium ion battery, by using graphene as an anode. With that integration, the battery will have higher storage capacity and will retain the energy for a longer period. Graphene-based energy storage devices are expected to be used in various low-energy devices such as portable computing devices and smartphones. They could become available within the next 5 to 10 years if everything goes according to plan. These batteries could also be used in energy-intensive applications such as electric vehicles as well as laptops. The good news is that they will significantly lower the weight of these devices.
Thanks to its extremely low light absorption, combined with its high electron mobility, graphene can be a reliable alternative to ITO or silicon when it comes to the manufacture of photovoltaic cells. Most solar cells available on the market today have silicon as one of the main components. The problem with silicon cells is that they are cost-intensive regarding production. Graphene, on the other hand, is considerably cheaper as compared to silicon cells. When silicon converts light into electricity, it usually produces both photons and electrons in equal measure. Therefore, plenty of energy is lost in the form of heat. According to a recent survey, graphene can generate numerous electrons than photons when converting the same amount of light energy into electricity – which means that it’s more efficient as compared to ITO and silicon. Its energy conversion percentage is currently rated at 60% compared to silicon which has an efficiency of 25%. As you can see, graphene is highly efficient when it comes to energy conversion. Apart from that, being thin and flexible means that photovoltaic cells made of graphene could be integrated into clothing. Therefore, you can recharge your phone as you walk. They can also be integrated into the windows of a house, thus powering a home.
Graphene is renowned for its extremely high conductivity. Due to this property, it can be used to make semiconductors. Semiconductors made of graphene will be moving information at a faster speed as compared to conventional materials. The Department of Energy recently conducted tests that proved that semiconductor polymers tend to conduct electricity at a higher speed especially when enhanced with a layer of graphene as compared to a layer of silicon. The same situation applies even when using a thicker polymer. For instance, a polymer with a thickness of 50 nanometers conducted electricity better when enhanced with graphene as compared to a plain polymer of 10 nanometers. Previously, there was popular belief that a thinner polymer could conduct charge better than a thicker one. But with the entry of graphene, all that is bound to change. However, the biggest challenge facing graphene in electronics is that it lacks a band gap.
In simple terms, a band gap is a gap between the conduction and valence sections in a material. When charge crosses from the conduction band to the valence band, there will be a flow of electricity. The band gap makes it possible for semiconductors like silicon to be used as transistors since they can easily switch from being a conductor to an insulator based on the movement of the electrons. And since graphene lacks a bandgap, electrons flow continuously, just like any other conductor.But recently, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology managed to produce graphene that comes with a band gap of approximately 0.5 volts. With such a huge bandgap, graphene can now be used as a semiconductor in various applications. And with the commercial production of graphene with a band gap, it will eventually overtake silicon as the preferred material for semiconductors.
Graphene features tight atomic bonds. Due to this structure, it’s impermeable almost to all liquids and gases, even those that have smaller molecules. However, the remarkable thing is that it allows water to pass through. Therefore, since water can pass through graphene and most of the other liquids and gasses cannot, it can be used as a great medium for filtration. A team of researchers from the University of Manchester tried graphene’s filtration levels using alcohol. They ended up with highly concentrated spirit distills, since only water present in the alcohol could pass through the graphene medium used during the filtration.
Apart from being used to filter liquids in water, graphene can also be used to remove toxins present in water. According to a survey conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, oxidized graphene is capable of removing radioactive materials like plutonium and present in water, leaving it completely potable. Therefore, some of the water laden with radioactive nuclear waste can be purified using graphene. The increasing global population has placed significant pressure on the available water sources.
Furthermore, issues of water pollution are on the increase. Therefore, maintaining clean drinking water remains a priority. However, most water filters don’t remove all the harmful materials completely. Apart from that, enhancing the cleaning capacity of most water filtration systems will require a huge capital outlay. And this is where graphene comes in. Graphene water filters are highly capable of cleaning vast quantities of water, thus increasing the amount of available potable water. Graphene water filters provide a cheaper and more efficient method of cleaning water, thus making it readily available for drinking to a higher number of people.
Graphene in Shoes
A new model of running shoes, featuring graphene in the soles has recently been introduced. The British shoe manufacturer, inov-8 launched these futuristic shoes. Working together with a team of graphene experts from the University of Manchester, inov-8 has managed to infuse graphene into the soles of these running shoes. These shoes, designed for a wide range of outdoor activities can cover 1000 miles than ordinary shoes. Furthermore, they are 50% more hard wearing as compared to other rubber outsoles. Inov-8 is the first brand in the world, which has managed to use graphene in footwear. Its G-Series line of running shoes, which come with soles infused with graphene are now available. Soft rubber tends to be grippy but deforms easily. On another hand, hard rubber tends to be more durable but loses some of its traction. Shoe manufacturers have been trying to find a solution to this problem for decades. Luckily, with the entry of graphene, shoe manufacturers can now create rubber outsoles, which are soft for maximum grip and hardwearing for extended durability.
Despite graphene’s incredible capabilities, it’s yet to be widely adopted. However, this can be attributed to financial challenges. It’s extremely expensive to produce Graphene in massive quantities. Apart from that, producing large sheets of graphene can lead to tiny fissures. Financial and production issues aside, the research into this ‘miracle’ material is not slowing down any time soon. And as you probably know, revolutions and innovations don’t happen overnight. Therefore, there is a high chance that graphene will play a significant role in various industries, over the coming years.