Graphene! It’s the materials science buzz word you’ve most likely heard on repeat for the last few years. It’s being touted as the “wonder material” that will revolutionize technology as we know it. It was isolated in 2004 by Nobel prize winning physicists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, and since then scientists have been creating a multitude of innovative device applications. I’m going to discuss what graphene is, overview its amazing properties, and what it means for the future.
What it is
Graphene is an atomically thin 2D material that is taking the electronics industry by storm. How thin you say? Graphene is only 1 atom thick and is the thinnest material that we currently know of. But don’t be fooled by this wonder material’s seemingly weak interlayer molecular bonds (which allows separate layers of graphene isolated from ordinary 3D graphite. Graphite can be can be thought of as many many stacks of graphene). Graphene packs quite a punch in terms of strength, and is the strongest known material on earth. In addition to it being both light and strong (about 100 times stronger than steel), it is also super flexible. This could result in (among a myriad of other possibilities) bendable, waterproof phones that are as thin as a piece of paper and don’t easily break. This trifecta of perfection puts this material in a class of its own in terms of electronic applications.
Graphene’s Molecular Structure
To better understand how graphene is able to create materials that are going to transform technology as we know it, I’m going to briefly explain its composition. (Since I’m not a physicist I consulted with a physics doctoral student who gave me some awesome explanations and examples).
- Graphene is a 1 atom thick, 2D material- This means you can’t see it with the naked eye. It also means that electrons can move in the x and y direction but not the z direction.
- Think of a piece of paper where the electrons can only move on the surface but not off the surface, this is what physicists mean by ‘2D’.
Why It’s Lightening Fast
- Graphene’s electrons are called “Dirac Electrons”. Dirac electrons are relativistic quasi-particles that effectively have no mass! (This is due to the interaction of graphene’s electrons with the carbon nuclei.)
- The behavior of graphene’s electrons allows it to conduct heat and electricity much faster than other semiconductors like silicon and gallium.
Why It’s Thin and Pliable
Graphene is thin because of the weak chemical bonding between graphite layers.
- When graphene is layered on each other it forms the 3D material graphite (think of a ream of paper stacked on each other). Graphite’s interlayer chemical bonds are very weak, and graphene can be easily extracted off of graphite by sticking on a piece of scotch tape and ripping it off (which was how Nobel prize winners Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov first extracted it).
Why Aren’t We Seeing Graphene Electronics in Droves??
One reason graphene phones, cars, and wearables aren’t flooding the market is because currently the majority of companies haven’t figured out how to create graphene transistors that turn “off.” The reason for this is because in ordinary semiconductors electrons can have any energy they want, except when they are in a region called the “band gap”. In approximate terms,what a transistor does is change the energy of the highest energy electrons and puts that energy into the band gap, and since electrons can’t have that energy, they can’t conduct electricity and the transistor turns off. Graphene on the other hand, is a zero gap semiconductor, meaning it doesn’t have that band gap and transistors are always set to “on.” Right now Samsung is the only company claiming to have created graphene transistors and they’re not in the idea sharing mood.
Graphene Tech You’ll Be Seeing in the Next Few Years
Once the transistor snag is worked out, you’ll be seeing copious amounts of graphene based electronics. Some that are currently being created in labs are:
- Paper thin phones with flexible displays (which is something that can’t be done using silicon)
- Energy efficient batteries- Nick Bilton reports that scientists at North Western University built a silicon/graphene battery that “stayed charged for more than a week and recharged in just 15 minutes.” There are also experiments with light powered computer chips, which will have a huge impact on energy efficiency.
- Waterproof devices
- Devices that can interface with your biological cells
- Quantum computers
- Faster, lighter and more durable planes and cars
How Graphene Will Affect Libraries
- 3D Printing- Meghan Neal is predicting that the combination of graphene and 3D printing will spur on the next industrial revolution.
- Energy Efficient Computers- Because graphene can be used to produce computer chips powered by light, you will definitely be seeing future computers that will help you save on your energy bills.
- Solar panels for just about anything- If your library is interested in becoming more “green” then graphene is the answer. Multitudes of patents using graphene-enhanced solar cells are being submitted every year.
- Graphene e-readers?- The applications of graphene to phones will probably trickle over into e-readers. Think bendable, waterproof, energy efficient, and cheap e-readers that you can check out to your patrons!
It’s crazy that something you can’t even see with your naked eye will be used in just about every electronic device in the coming years. What are your graphene predictions for the future?