Graphene - Whatever happened to it?

Graphene the Great

Whatever happened to it?

April 8, 2019, Bruno Jacobson

Graphene, first isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, is quite the material. Hailed as semimetal capable of disrupting the fields of electronics, energy, and others, it looked more promising than almost anything we had ever come across. But whatever happened to it?

Graphene the Great

 

When Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first isolated graphene, a little over a decade ago, it was hailed as an extraordinary material. And it’s an appropriate compliment. The two men even went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, for their “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.”

 

It is not only the strongest material ever tested (about 200 times stronger than steel), but it also conducts head and electricity efficiently (more conductive than copper), as well as being nearly transparent.

 

Reported by TechRadar, Frank Koppens, from the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, spoke about what makes graphene so special. “It’s very versatile, and what’s very special about it is its electronic properties – there is no other material that is so conductive.

 

“It also has lots of other properties that are crucial – it’s flexible and easy to integrate it into micro-electronics, and as a raw material, it’s cheap. It’s just made out of carbon,” he continued.

 

But if it’s so good, and so cheap, why haven’t we heard too much about it lately?

 

Well, turns out it’s not that easy to harvest graphene. According to The Engineer, to harvest graphene, you use sound energy or shearing forces “to exfoliate graphene layers from graphite, and then dispersing the layers in large amounts of organic solvent.”

 

Though it sounds simple, the main problem is that if you don’t use enough solvent, the graphene layers reattach themselves back into graphite. That means that, right now, you need one ton of organic solvent for every kilogram of graphene yielded. Meaning it’s hardly an efficient, or environmentally-friendly, method.

 

But there is hope.

 

In the same article, The Engineer reports findings of a new technique developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS), who claim it requires 50 times less solvent for the same effects.

 

The new method works by exfoliating pre-treated graphite under highly alkaline conditions, which makes the graphene layers cluster together without needing to increase the solvent’s volume. It also results in repulsive forces between the graphene layers, which means they don’t reattach later on.

 

According to Professor Loh Kian Ping from the NUS Faculty of Science, this technique is “an attractive solution for industries to carry out large scale synthesis of this promising material in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.”

 

But innovations in obtaining graphene aren’t the only encouraging point. There are some of the other trends pointing to its (perhaps) eminent rise.

 

Some of the most relevant are maybe the number of patents for, and research papers on, graphene, which has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

 

For example, research papers on graphene have multiplied by more than five times, growing to almost 20,000 in 2017, from about 5,000 in 2010.

 

The market for graphene itself is also growing. In 2016, the global graphene market was estimated to sit at $32 million US dollars, while by 2022 it is predicted to surpass the mark of $200 million US dollars.

 

For it to continue to grow, however, the first step is making it cost-effective and sustainable, and therefore graphene something that can be mass produced. Easier said than done. But perhaps the NUS researchers are onto something and, soon enough, we will start seeing greater developments in this area.

 

As mentioned before, the isolation of graphene seemed to almost herald the coming of a miracle. But, over the years, the sentiment simmered down, though it never quite went away.

 

Like many other great future expectations, maybe the trick is to observe developments from afar, but consistently. After all, there is still plenty of potential for graphene.

 

Should it ever become mainstream, the applications would be manifold.

 

According to Futurism, among some of them include the ability to power electric vehicles to travel at a range of 800 km, allow ultrafast photonic computer chips to run on light instead of electricity, water desalination, create flexible smartphone or smart wearables displays, and (maybe cooler of them all) be the basis of super-sensitive elastomer skin for robots.

 

Let us hope, then, that graphene makes a good comeback.


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