– By Jacob Foxx –
Science fiction has invented all sorts of materials for the future in an effort to get around the physical limitations of current technologies. Star Trek gave us fictional substances like tritanium, dilithium, and transparent aluminum. Recently, scientists believe they may have discovered a real super material. It is called graphene and it has many people excited.
Graphene is carbon sheets only one atom thick. They are arranged in a hexagonal lattice structure similar to that pictured above. This rare structure gives it amazing properties. It is incredibly strong (believed to be 100 times stronger than steel), nearly transparent, and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. Even more interesting is that it will self-repair when exposed to carbon atoms, whether in pure form or in hydrocarbons.
Yes, believe it or not, there could be such a thing as “self-regenerating molecular armor” (line from Transformers).
Scientists working with the new material believe it could have many practical applications. Its transparent quality makes it ideal for display screens. Imagine a cellphone screen that cannot crack or can bend without breaking. It could also be used in solar panels due to its strength, electrical conductivity, and transparent properties. Its conductivity also allows it to be used in circuits and transistors. According to Wikipedia: For integrated circuits, graphene has a high carrier mobility, as well as low noise, allowing it to be used as the channel in a field-effect transistor. I’m not sure what that means but it sounds exciting.
The other exciting part is the prevalence of the raw material needed to make graphene. All you need is carbon. Carbon is cheaper than almost all other equivalent metal such as copper, iron, gold, aluminum, or titanium. As far as I know, the production process does not emit any kind of pollution or toxic waste. It certainly doesn’t have a carbon footprint. If it emitted any carbon, producers would certainly want to recapture it and use it! Carbon emitters would have incentive to capture and store the carbon their processes emit, then sell it to graphene producers.
How is it that simple carbon can have such incredible properties? After all, we’ve used carbon for a long time in pencils and charcoal, neither of which are strong or transparent.
The key is the hexagonal sheet structure. Graphene doesn’t occur in nature but scientists have long been aware of its theoretical potential. The challenge was devising a process that could produce graphene from normal carbon. In 2004, scientists finally found a way, producing the first known quantity of graphene. Since then there’s been a rush of research done to develop commercial and industrial applications, as well as scale-up production.
If researchers are correct, graphene could boost solar panels to near 100 percent efficiency, providing the breakthrough necessary to make solar power a viable replacement for fossil fuels. It could dramatically improve computer processor performance and decrease the reliance on other metals such as copper. Then there’s its strength. Graphene is insanely strong and lightweight. If developers are able to scale-up production, we could see graphene used as a construction material or used for vehicle chassis and aircraft.
Who knows, it might make a good armor plating for tanks and battlemechs.
These innovations will take years, even decades. Graphene is still difficult to produce. Graphene could be the transparent aluminum of the future, or it might end up being another exotic material too expensive for practical use. Fortunately, companies, universities, and investors are all very interested in graphene and are funding its development. Who knows, we might see whales at Sea World behind a graphene window soon. Your next computer or cellphone could have graphene components.