7 things you need to know about…. The ‘miracle material’ graphene

Credit: The Home of Graphene | The University of Manchester

Already the stuff of scientific legend, graphene is described as a wonder material that promises to transform the future. Here are 7 things you need to know about a material with unique and immensely interesting properties.

  1. Graphene is a two-dimensional compound that is only one atom thick. It is one million times thinner than a human hair, yet 200 times stronger than steel. George Osborne described it as “the strongest, thinnest, best conducting material known to science” in his 2010 speech to the Conservative Party, in which he declared £50 million would be spent on its research.
  1. Scientific knowledge about the potential usefulness of graphene dates back to the 1800s, however it was not until 2004 that the first crystals of graphene were discovered. Scientists from Manchester University noticed small traces of graphene left on a piece of scotch tape used to clean a graphite stone. They realised that this simple method would separate the two-dimensional layer of graphene from the graphite. In 2010, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Physics for this discovery.
  1. Another astounding characteristic of this substance is its pliability, despite its phenomenal strength. Graphene can be described as having a honeycomb structure. This unique two-dimensional lattice allows it to bend or for the hexagonal shape to be distorted, whilst still remaining incredibly strong. Researchers are exploring potential uses in touch screen technology, to make screens more flexible and durable.
  1. Graphene’s electrons are more mobile than any other substance at room temperature. This could mean that graphene computer chips would be able to process data at much higher rates whilst simultaneously cutting power consumption. However, this great strength may also be considered a weakness, as graphene lacks a band gap. Thus, its electrons are impossible to control and switch on and off.
  1. Graphene is a highly disruptive technology and with so many unique traits it opens doors to myriad of new fields of research. Interested investors from scientists to policy makers to industry leaders have rushed to jump on the graphene bandwagon. According to the UK’s Intellectual Property Office, since 2009 graphene-related patents increased from 1000 per year to 9100 in 2014.
  1. Due to its incredible strength and two-dimensional makeup, graphene is impermeable to gases and liquids. As such, scientists are currently working on using it as a highly selective water filter. This could revolutionise popular desalination techniques, which are typically heavily energy reliant.
  1. While graphene has many phenomenal features, there is still much research to be done to better understand it. There are possible negative impacts; a study undertaken by researchers at Brown University showed that due to its sharp and strong nature, graphene particles can cause severe damage to flesh tissue. If these nanoparticles were to enter waterways this could have serious ramifications for ecosystems and humans alike.