The Secret Truth About Graphene – what’s the hold up?

Ever since it was first discovered in 2004,
graphene has been hailed as one of the most

important breakthroughs in materials since
the plastics revolution more than a century

ago. A million times thinner than human hair,
but 200 times stronger than steel. The early

predictions were that graphene would almost
immediately enable the kinds of products and

technologies that we’re used to seeing in
sci-fi movies. Cut to more than a decade and

a half later and that still hasn’t happened.
Not even close. With opinions split between

people overhyping graphene or calling it a
massive disappointment, it’s time we got

to the truth of what is really happening with
this so-called ‘wonder material’.

I’m Matt Ferrell … welcome to Undecided.

The hype around graphene is hardly surprising:
a manmade substance with extraordinary properties.

It’s incredibly versatile and conductive,
and is predicted to heavily disrupt industries

ranging from consumer electronics to aerospace
for a while now. But even though progress

hasn’t been as fast as many would have hoped,
researchers and product makers are now, at

last, beginning to make some headway.

Before we go on to what it can do, let’s
first take a look at what graphene actually

is. To put it simply, it is fundamentally
a single layer of graphite – the material

used to make pencil. But instead of having
a three-dimensional crystalline structure

like graphite, graphene is two-dimensional,
meaning it’s just one atom thick, with the

atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice or honeycomb
arrangement – a bit like chicken wire.

This structure is important because it allows
each carbon atom to be covalently bonded to

three more around it, and the strength of
these bonds is one of the main reasons why

graphene is so strong and stable. Another
reason is because the atoms delocalise electrons

– meaning they can move around more freely
– and this is what makes graphene so good

at conducting electricity and heat. In fact,
it’s the most conductive material that we’ve

ever come across.

You’re probably thinking that the process
of discovering this amazing material must

have been so mind-bogglingly complicated that
us mere mortals couldn’t possibly comprehend

how it was done, but it was actually almost
laughably simple. It was first isolated – aka

extracted from graphite – by two researchers,
Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, at the University

of Manchester in the UK back in ‘04. How
did they do it? By using sticky tape on a

piece of graphite and peeling it off, folding
it and repeating the process over and over

again until they ended up with a single layer
of graphene. Yep, it really was as easy as

that.

Although graphene was known to exist as far
back as the 1940s, the discovery was widely

celebrated by the scientific community. Geim
and Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize

for Physics in 2010 – and it immediately
generated huge levels of excitement about

the material’s possibilities and potential
uses in what many people hoped would be the

not too distant future. Expectations ranged
from using it to replace silicon transistors

in electronics in the short term, all the
way to building the immense cable or tether

that would be needed for a space elevator
out of graphene in the future, although I

think we can all safely say that idea is a
little way off for the time being.

So, what exactly has been holding it back?
Why is the market not flooded with graphene-based

products when we’ve known how to make it
for years? When graphene was first isolated

it was done in tiny amounts, and one of the
main issues since then has been how to scale

up production of the material while ensuring
the quality of graphene you end up is good

enough for the applications that it is intended
for.

When the process of mass producing the material
is – at least for now – very complex and

expensive, graphene products need to be significantly
better than what’s already out there for

them to be considered worthwhile. If they’re
not as good as the material they’re trying

to replace, or there’s very little noticeable
difference, then why bother? For example,

silicone is an excellent material for use
in electronics because of its special semiconducting

qualities, and many experts don’t see it
as having many weaknesses. So if graphene

is going to knock it off its perch with the
added cost and hassle needed to make it, then

it’ll need be a true game changer once the
production methods have matured enough.

This was the problem with the first products
that came out which included graphene in some

form. Many of the early entrepreneurs that
were first to bring it to market ended up

disappointing their customers and investors
with products that did technically incorporate

graphene, but didn’t sufficiently outperform
what was already out there despite costing

considerably more. It was too soon; not enough
follow-up research had been done at that stage

and it actually put a lot of people off graphene
as a marketable material for a while.

Fortunately, researchers have been testing
a range of new approaches to mass producing

graphene in recent years, and the results
that we’re starting to see are very promising,

which is just as well, otherwise we’ll be
needing a LOT of sticky tape to build that

space elevator.

One of the most popular and well-tested methods
is a process called Chemical Vapor Deposition

or CVD, where graphene is effectively grown
on a metallic surface, like copper, by combining

carbon-bearing gases inside a high-temperature
reaction chamber. This leads to graphene being

deposited onto the metal, which can then be
separated and transferred onto the substance

that needs enhancing. But doing it this way
requires large amounts of energy, only yields

small amounts and relies on the use of harsh
chemicals that can create a toxic by-product,

which is why others have gone in search of
cleaner, cheaper and less power-hungry ways

of making graphene.

One new approach that has caught the eye of
experts in the field is called flash graphene,

which has been described as a way of “turning
trash into treasure.” This involves taking

virtually any material with high carbon content,
such as used rubber tires and even some mixed

plastics, and converting it into graphene
in an instant. The material is heated to 3,000

Kelvins – that’s approximately 5,000 degrees
Fahrenheit – in just ten milliseconds. This

causes all of the carbon-to-carbon bonds to
break and reconstruct as ‘turbostratic’

graphene, which has misaligned layers that
are easier to separate. Its creators, a team

at Rice University in Houston, hope to produce
a kilogram of graphene a day within two years,.

Others have been experimenting with new and
emerging technologies, such as 3D printing,

to see whether they could be used for graphene
production. Researchers at the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology successfully printed
a number of 3D objects from graphene and compared

the results with conventional materials. Some
of the pieces came out ten times stronger

than steel at one twentieth the mass. Scientists
have also experimented with dispersing graphene

in water, which would allow it to be sprayed
onto a surface as a coating. A team at Umeå

University in Sweden has created a thin film
of highly conductive material from a dispersed

graphene solution. They are hopeful that this
be used to create electrodes for supercapacitors,

which are advanced storage solutions that
can charge much quicker and degrade less than

batteries, but can’t yet hold much energy.

While the plentiful supply of this wonder
material remains a work in progress, we are

now finally starting to see the release of
graphene-based products that actually do seem

to offer significant, tangible benefits over
what their competitors have been making for

years with industry standard materials. A
company called Real Graphene has created a

graphene-enhanced lithium battery that is
thought to be on the verge of commercial use.

It can cut phone charging time from an hour
and a half to 20 minutes, lasts three to five

times longer than conventional lithium batteries
and generates less heat. This was achieved

by mixing graphene in with the lithium and
introducing a composite layer of graphene.

Touch screens made with graphene are thought
to be on the horizon as well. They could be

printed on thin plastic rather than glass,
which would make them light, flexible, shatterproof

and therefore ideal for smartphones. Wearable
electronics made using graphene that integrate

directly with fabric clothing are also believed
to be achievable in the next few years.

Graphene’s high-strength and heat-conductive
properties make it an excellent material for

a variety of protective equipment too. Italian
motorcycle helmet manufacturer Momodesign

now offers a range of helmets with graphene-coated
exterior shells. According to the company,

the presence of graphene improves the distribution
of any impact force and dissipates heat faster

than conventional materials, increasing protection
from thermal degradation.

Another Italian company, Italcementi, has
proposed graphene-infused cement, which could

lead to houses that don’t require wiring
as the building material is already highly

conductive on its own. Graphene’s thermal
properties allow for walls that easily dissipate

heat, potentially eliminating the need for
air conditioning units in hot countries. With

demand for fresh water around the world also
on the rise, graphene may have the answer

to this challenge too. Physicists in China
and the US have invented a graphene-based

desalination membrane that can remove salt
from seawater. It’s a combination of a single

graphene sheet and a carbon nanotube mesh,
which creates a centimeter-sized membrane.

Desalination can already be done with evaporation,
but this uses a lot of energy. Reverse osmosis

is another method, but better membranes have
been needed for years.

It could even kill bacteria and help save
lives. Researchers at the Chalmers University

of Technology in Sweden have shown how attaching
‘vertical graphene flakes’ to the surface

of medical implants protects them from bacterial
infections. This could eliminate the need

for antibiotics and lowers the chance of implant
rejection, which is actually surprisingly

common. In fact, healthcare is now one of
the leading sectors for graphene applications.

Its ultra-thin thickness is ideal for flexible
circuits, a potential new way of monitoring

people for health purposes, or possibly harnessing
energy from the wearer. They could be worn

on the skin in the form of ‘smart patches’,
integrated into contact lenses or at the extreme

end used to create tiny sensors that travel
in the bloodstream.

Although experts and the media have been saying
this for more than a decade, it does feel

as though we are on the cusp of the long-awaited
graphene era. Research has come a long way

in recent years, mass production now looks
feasible, we’re seeing products launched

that demonstrate the material’s power and
the list of realistic applications appears

to be growing by the day. The thing I think
a lot of people lose sight of is that there’s

a pretty wide gap going from lab to mass produced
product. It will take time for some of the

more ambitious proposals that we’ve covered
here to see the light of day, if they ever

do, but there are still lots of reasons to
be excited about the future of this incredible

material.

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One thought on “The Secret Truth About Graphene – what’s the hold up?

  • 15 October, 2021 at 5:48 pm
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