Could the thinnest, strongest, lightest and most conductive material ever created spark a new industrial revolution? At Hannover Messe, graphene was among the materials expected to have a big future.
In theory, graphene can do almost anything. It’s the first truly two-dimensional crystal and the thinnest, strongest and lightest material known. Its other properties also give it the potential to change the digital world. Kevin Curran is a senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The importance of graphene is that electrons can travel across it at close to the speed of light. This is about one hundred times faster than they move at present through silicon, the de facto substrate for computers. It is also super-thin, super-strong, super-flexible and an excellent conductor.
Theoretically possible since the 1940s, graphene was first produced by Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim at the University of Manchester in 2004, earning both scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics. Since then, the race has been on to make graphene a commercially viable industrial material.
All the carbon atoms in graphene are arranged in a 2D frame, a one-atom-thick fabric,» said Novoselov at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February 2016. «But despite being so simple, it attracts many superlatives. It’s the strongest possible material, the most stretchable, the most permeable, the most conductive. There are other materials that have one of those properties, but here it’s combined in one very simple crystal.
Since it’s manufactured from abundant carbon, the supply of graphene is nearly inexhaustible, in stark contrast to the rare metals presently used by the electronics industry.
A new era in electronics?
According to Novoselov, graphene has potential applications in high-frequency electronics (touch panels), optoelectronics (photonics) and thermo-management (batteries). That could mean batteries that recharge in a few minutes, flexible phones and buildings coated in photovoltaic paint holding graphene-based solar cells. Stijn Goossens is a postdoctoral research engineer in nano-optoelectronics at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona.
We have been talking about flexible, transparent, wearable electronics for years, but so far this field hasn’t really delivered, largely because the materials aren’t good enough. With graphene, we can build an ecosystem of flexible and transparent, functional devices that can do the same as your phone, but integrates into clothes as graphene inks and sensors.
Graphene’s sensitivity could even help create spectral sensors that use light to reveal everything from heart rate and precise blood chemistry, to food ripeness or the pesticides used in its production.
Replacing silicon with graphene in electronics will require investment in manufacturing this innovative material with consistent quality. Once it’s mass-produced, the innovations can flow.