Advances in consumer product technology often progress in linear fashion. One could easily look at the evolution of televisions, phones, and gaming consoles to understand this reality. Whether by design or not, we in the general public have been programmed to expect PlayStation 1 to be followed by PlayStation 2, the iPhone 4 by the iPhone 5, and TV boxes by flat screens and plasma television sets. Yet, every once in a while, something comes along that eliminates such linear trends and has such a profound impact on the technology industry as a whole that its effect can only be described as a jump.
Such a jump is currently underway, and driving it is a two-dimensional compound (yes, a two-dimensional material in a three-dimensional world) derived from graphite—the same material we all used in our Kindergarten pencils.
About 10 years ago, the Dutch–British physicist Andre Geim discovered a substance that will revolutionize the way we understand matter and industries ranging from entertainment, to DNA sequencing, to energy. At one atom thick, this material is called graphene. It is literally the thinnest form of graphite (and for that matter, any material) physically possible.
This two-dimensional, one-atom-thick material is revolutionary in terms of its incredibly wide range of potential applications and its historically rapid implementation from the laboratory into consumer products. As creator Geim admits, “typically it takes 40 years for a new material to move from an academic lab into a consumer product, but within 10 years, graphene has jumped from our lab into an industrial lab and now there are pilot products all over the world.”
The more you learn about the unique properties of grapheme, the more this speed in development makes sense. At just 0.33 nanometers high, it is the thinnest and first two-dimensional material to be observed. Because of its unique electrical properties, it absorbs a very high percentage (2.3 percent) of light, meaning that despite being one atom thick, it can be observed by the naked eye. That being said, one gram of the material could cover a soccer field, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Graphene is a superior thermal and electric conductor. It’s 1,000 times more conductive than copper and silicon. If that’s not enough to impress you, graphene is harder than diamond, about 300 times stronger than steel, and can stretch up to 20 percent of its original length. It’s also capable of being flexible while maintaining its structural integrity, enabling it to usher in a new generation of flexible phones, tablets, and gadgets. Graphene will allow digital devices to be embedded almost anywhere. Flexible smart phones and screens have already been made and advertised, so leave some extra room on your Christmas wish lists.
What’s particularly interesting regarding graphene and its links to the kinds of topics we work on at the Colorado College Environmental and Energy Security Project are its superior properties regarding transmission, storage, and conversion of energy and electricity. This “miracle material” will make solar cells more efficient and cheaper to produce as well as improving the performance of energy storage devices such as batteries, super-capacitors, and fuel cells. Graphene is an ideal material for use in integrated circuits; in fact, IBM has already made an integrated circuit prototype made of the stuff. In the long run, it will undoubtedly replace silicon because of its much greater efficiency as a conductor.
Silicon is currently the standard for commercial solar cells, and for some time has been thought to be the most efficient material when it comes to transforming light into energy. However, The Institute of Photonics Sciences in Spain has shown that unlike silicon, which generates only one current-driving electron for each photon it absorbs, the “miracle material” can produce multiple electrons, suggesting the possibility of an increasing return to scale property for solar technology. Solar cells made with graphene could potentially yield 60 percent solar cell efficiency, double the widely regarded maximum efficiency of silicon solar cells.
The list of unique and progressive properties of this material and a full discussion of its potential applications in various areas of technology far exceeds the scope of this article. We’re on the brink of realizing just how revolutionary this material is and the many ways that it will transform our lives and our relationship with technology. This single material is in itself a very small thing worthy of great excitement and very large expectations. It is too early to accurately predict how many doors graphene will open for the average consumer as well as Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
However, this material is good news for human civilization and our ability to optimize our usage of energy and other commodities, making our civilization more sustainable within the constraints of this planet and its resources.