Science & Technology Correspondent
From stone to copper to bronze to iron to steel and dating back to ancient civilizations, humans have continually discovered new materials to make tools and improve the conditions of their lives. Scientists discovered a new material about 10 years ago that would change engineering as we know it: graphene.
Graphene is a form of pure carbon in which atoms form perfect hexagons, similar to a honeycomb. This structure is the same formation of carbon atoms found in graphite. So what makes graphene different from graphite? Graphite consists of multiple layers of these honeycomb structures, one stacked on top of the other. Graphene only has one honeycomb layer. That’s right — it is only one atom thick, making it the world’s first two-dimensional material. Being a two-dimensional substance in a three-dimensional world is pretty cool, and graphene has many unique properties that make it the next breakthrough in the world of engineering.
Since it is so thin — about one million times thinner than paper — graphene is flexible and transparent. Surprisingly, it is possible to see graphene with the naked eye because it absorbs a small amount of white light. You may also think that a material this thin would be extremely fragile, but the exact opposite is true. Graphene is the strongest material known to man, about 200 times stronger than steel; that is stronger than diamond. Graphene is also the most efficient heat and electricity conductor ever discovered, proving useful in developing new electronic equipment.
Years before graphene was produced in a lab, scientists speculated about its existence. Their problem was that they did not know how to produce this two-dimensional material. In 2004, two British scientists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, discovered a method of producing graphene that is so simple, you can produce it in your dorm room. Geim and Novoselov stuck a piece of Scotch tape to a clump of graphite. When they peeled the tape off, graphite residue stuck to the bottom side. They then took another piece of tape and stuck the two pieces together. When they peeled the pieces apart, the graphite split and some residue stuck to each piece of tape. They repeated this process until they had a piece of tape containing a layer of graphite that was only one layer thick: graphene. So go grab a No. 2 pencil and some Scotch tape so you can recreate Geim and Novoselov’s experiment and produce graphene. And for all of you aspiring scientists, Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in physics for this simple experiment. Winning the world’s most prestigious award in science may be much simpler than you think.
As if the chemistry behind graphene is not interesting enough, the average American will be most excited about the expectations that scientists and engineers have for using graphene, especially in mobile devices. A company called Plastic Logic, with help from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, has already created the world’s first graphene-based flexible display. It looks like an e-ink e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, except it is paper thin and flexible. The company also has plans to add LCD and LED light technology to produce color images. Other engineers are researching the effect of graphene in rechargeable batteries. They are currently trying greatly to expand the capacity of batteries and recharge them in seconds, all using graphene. Imagine taking less than a minute to charge your cell phone and then not having to charge it again for a month or longer. No offense, Apple, but the latest iPhone would have nothing on a graphene cell phone.