The Era of Graphene

Every once in a while there appears on the stage some revolutionary material that carries with it a promise of overturning the existing order and bringing us a host of innovations - faster computing, stronger structural elements, robust medical implants, and so on. Some of them eventually fail to make a mark on our technology and science, while others turn out to be true superstars with almost an unimaginable range of applications. The recent fast-paced sequence of breakthroughs related to graphene indicates strongly that it's a prime example of the latter category.

When combined with boron nitride, it could help build a new generation of transistors with extremely short reaction times. This in turn could push the limits now imposed by Moore's law on further miniaturization and speedup computers. Because of overlapping electron bands (unlike other semiconductors) graphene could make much more efficient solar cells in the near future. Its extraordinary strength and flexibility will probably lead to a whole new class of structural elements and materials, improving construction durability, personal protection and armor, creating stronger, lighter and more comfortable prosthetics and implants or building spacecraft with unheard-of performance. Graphene absorbs approximately 2.3% of the visible light passing through it, making it almost completely transparent (and non-reflective) which - combined with its excellent conductivity - will facilitate the creation of better touch screens with the ability to bend.

So what is graphene? It's a material comprising a single layer of carbon atoms (in effect making it a two-dimensional structure) arranged in a hexagonal pattern, sometimes referred to as an atomic-scale chicken wire. It is related to the much-hyped carbon nanotubes, which can be imagined as graphene sheets "rolled up" into hollow cylindrical "tubes". It first appeared on theoretical physicists' radars around the 1940s, when many of its properties were first calculated. There had been some modest attempts at isolating it later in the 20th century, but true breakthrough came when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov made ingenious use of Scotch tape to peel away layers of graphene (a method they later dubbed "micromechanical cleavage"). For their contributions Geim and Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.

What makes graphene special is a set of physicochemical properties unlike any other material. On the molecular level it has been observed that electrons moving through graphene achieve velocities much greater than in other conductors and they behave as if they are massless. This accounts for some strongly relativistic effects accompanying their motion - formerly found in high-energy physics or cosmology. Because of its high electrical conductivity and short electron passage, graphene makes a good candidate for electrical connections in nano-scale circuits.

But what will eventually come out of this innovative material is not dependent on its virtues alone. Only with inexpensive industrial processes for producing large amounts of graphene will it make a viable successor for many technologies presently used in various branches of industry and science. Fortunately, there is a variety of production methods being developed and improved all the time, so graphene may have a bright and promising future.

About the author

Chin Trento

Chin Trento holds a bachelor’s degree in applied chemistry from the University of Illinois. His educational background gives him a broad base from which to approach many topics. He has been working with writing advanced materials for over four years in Stanford Advanced Materials (SAM). His main purpose in writing these articles is to provide a free, yet quality resource for readers. He welcomes feedback on typos, errors, or differences in opinion that readers come across.

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