Graphene may change technology forever

Ben Scheelk

Innovation: the result of a multi-billion dollar research effort, a black-budget contract and some pork-barrel intrigue—or a simple idea, a #2 pencil, and a little bit of scotch tape? That is all it took for University of Manchester researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov to isolate graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon substance, from ordinary graphite in 2004 by using scotch tape to peel a sample off a regular pencil tip. Their discovery, which earned them the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, has the potential to revolutionize electronics and computing. Graphene’s electrical conductivity, strength and flexibility make it well-suited for a host of applications. The question is: how will graphene, and the technological innovations it spawns, revolutionize society? Move over silicon, there is a new sheriff in town.

Graphene, a 2-D material consisting of a flat monolayer of carbon atoms, possesses a variety of interesting properties. In addition to being the thinnest material discovered, it is also the best heat conductor known to science, and it is as good as copper at conducting electricity. Although it is nearly transparent, it is extremely dense and not even a helium atom can pass through it. Plus, the strong carbon bonds which bind together the atoms in a symmetrical honeycomb lattice give it incredible tensile strength—graphene is even stronger than steel. The discovery of graphene has opened up a variety of new opportunities in quantum research and the study of 2-D materials. Once thought to be impossibly unstable above absolute zero, 2-D nanomaterials like graphene are not only revolutionizing the way we think about matter on the atomic scale—they are changing the way we engineer on the atomic scale.

The potential practical applications are what have everyone talking. Graphene, being nearly transparent and a good conductor of electricity, might be suitable for producing next-generation touch screens. Researchers have recently shown that the lifespan of a lithium-ion battery can be significantly improved by incorporating graphene into the anode of the battery. By improving the cycling stability with graphene, researchers hope to supercharge batteries that will be used to power the future fleet of electric vehicles and other high-consumption devices. Perhaps the most exciting development is in the science of solar panels. Researchers are developing ways to produce flexible, low-cost organic photovoltaic cells (OPV) using graphene. Although they would not produce as much electricity as silicon cells, their light weight, low cost, flexibility and easy manufacturability make them well suited for widespread use. Just imagine, our whole world canvassed in relatively inexpensive solar cells. They could cover our houses, our vehicles, even our bodies. Virtually any material we use or wear could have graphene OPV cells incorporated into its construction. Talk about changing the geography of energy production.

Yet, when you start talking about the successor to silicon, you really start to turn some heads. For one thing, silicon got the ball rolling in the digital age. It is Silicon Valley that has catapulted the United States to the forefront of the world economy and cutting-edge technology, so when people start talking about a replacement for the coveted semiconductor, the argument deserves a microscope.

Silicon is an amazing material. Its band structure and energy gap allow it to operate as both an insulator and conductor (hence semiconductor), which makes it well-suited for a host of processing applications. But graphene does not possess the same energy gap as silicon, which means a transistor made from graphene cannot be fully “turned off.” This makes it not fully capable of replacing silicon in the processors we manufacture today. Yet, companies like IBM still see potential in graphene to enrich the functionality of computer chips through the construction of hybrid circuits.

Graphene, like any new invention, has a large, diverse group of supporters and skeptics. While it has been shown to be a truly ground-breaking new nanomaterial, until further research is done, it is impossible to say whether it will live up to all of its earth-shattering expectations and innovative implementations. What is undeniable is the miracle of its discovery—not as much the proof of its existence as the humble means by which its proof was achieved. Graphene Valley, still a vision to be fulfilled, is a technology yet to be fully explored; but, for now, one cannot help but admire the kind of results achieved with a roll of scotch tape and a pencil.