Whilst having a phone in your pocket that can bend and fold without resulting in damage may seem like a far-fetched idea, it would be prudent not to jump to this conclusion too quickly. It is a real possibility, and the key to it has been under our noses since the dawn of time in the form of one well-known element: carbon.
It is an allotrope of carbon called graphene that we are interested in, and it has the potential to make serious advancements in technology with its application.
What Is Graphene, Exactly?
Graphene is a semi-metal that consists of one single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, and it forms the basis for many other carbon allotropes, such as graphite, diamond, and charcoal.
Its planar monolayer of carbon atoms are arranged in a 2D lattice, and the electrons present within its atomic structure behave like massless particles. Together, this gives graphene its strange properties, such as supreme strength, high mobility of electrons, and unparalleled thermal conductivity. The latter property, thermal conductivity, is due to graphene being a zero-bandgap structure, which causes it to behave like a metallic material, and it is this that unlocks the potential for serious technological innovation. Graphene has unrivalled properties when it comes to the conduction of electricity and heat, physical mechanics, and even optics.
Theorized for several decades prior to it being separated from graphite by University of Manchester physicists in 2004—an achievement which netted them the Nobel Prize in Physics—graphene’s many remarkable properties have resulted in thousands of new patents, as some of the world’s most prominent companies race to develop graphene-based innovations, products, and technological solutions.
Although such technologies and products are not yet widely available to consumers, there have been many reported successes where graphene has been used in energy storage, liquid filtration, and, most excitingly, flexible and lightweight consumer products.
Applications to Technology and Engineering
As you can imagine, graphene has the potential to be truly revolutionary, and its discovery in 2004 is likely to be one of this century’s most formidable breakthroughs.
Although graphene-based products are not yet widely available—and huge milestones in its research and development are yet to be reached—it is possible to consider how engineers can apply it to technology and speculate about some of the things we may be seeing hit the market over the next couple of decades.
Smartphones: Unbreakable and Rapid Charging
Graphene is supremely strong, flexible, and transparent, making it the ideal replacement for the glass screens we see (and, for some of you, regularly break) on smartphones and tablets. Taking advantage of its mechanical strength and excellent conductivity, engineers can apply these properties to create flexible phone screens to replace current indium-oxide touchscreen displays.
Remember how I mentioned that graphene can also be found in other carbon allotropes such as diamonds, which are virtually indestructible? You get the idea!
Not only this, but by attaching graphene to the electrodes of current batteries, it may well be possible to create high-energy batteries, which are more stable, can be charged quicker and more frequently, and discharge slower. This has applications not only to smartphones, but also hybrid cars and other battery-powered devices.
The Next Generation of Body Armour and PPE
Despite it only being one atom thick, graphite is the strongest material ever discovered—something proven in 2008 by researchers at Columbia University—and its potential applications to the likes of body armour and other pieces of PPE are phenomenal.
Graphite’s combination of superior strength, high conductivity, and flexibility theoretically make it possible for graphene textiles to be made into wearable accessories such as body armour or woven with other materials to create graphene-based garments—think stab-proof t-shirts, for example. When two single-layer sheets of graphene are combined to form a dual layer, the result is an ultra-thin and lightweight sheet that is compact and easy to transport or wear, yet tough enough to withstand a bullet.
Should stab-proof clothing become an economically viable reality, we can only begin to imagine how this would completely change the fashion industry due to the likely demand from major retailers and manufacturers.
What About Graphene Computing?
Much of the hype surrounding graphene has been concerned with the possibility of graphene computing. Whilst this was an area of high interest after its discovery in 2004, it is not something we are likely to see hitting the consumer markets any time soon.
It is important to remember that graphene is not a true semiconductor like silicon, germanium, and gallium compounds—common components used in electronic devices—and thus it cannot be switched from being a conductor in its conductive state to an insulator in an insulating state. Because of this, graphene does not have an insulating off-switch, and so it is not something that can be used in digital logic like silicon currently is.
Although graphene computing is not something which we are likely to see for a while, it is virtually guaranteed to happen eventually. The electrical properties of graphene are far better than those of silicon—graphene can produce multiple current-driving electrons per photon absorbed, whereas silicon can only generate one—so it is more a case of when rather than if. To say that scientists and technical engineers have their work cut out for them in this regard, however, would be a gross understatement.
What’s Next for Graphene?
Graphene is still very much in its infancy, yet scientists and engineers are already making huge strides with it. Although it had been theorized since the 1940s, it wasn’t until 2004 when it was finally isolated from graphite, and, since then, we have seen major developments. As technology itself gets better and further research is carried out, the potential applications of graphene for engineers and tech firms are huge. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of graphene’s potential uses, and it is something that will undoubtedly revolutionize the world. Engineers, take note.