Thin, light, flexible and stronger than steel, graphene is touted as the wonder material of the twenty-first century. Offering unique electronic thermal properties, scientists and engineers envision this material as enabling a variety of new technologies, ranging from new water-filtration systems and drug-delivery media to thin and flexible electronics, as well as the ability to eliminate government debts in a single bound. (Okay, that last one is a joke.) But can this novel carbon material possibly live up to the promises of its proponents, or is it doomed to become yet another “flying car” (now the epitome of cool tech that is perennially just around the corner but, as everyone knows, probably won’t arrive)?
What Is Graphene?
Graphene is a single-atom-thick material composed entirely of carbon. The atoms form a tessellated pattern (lattice) of hexagon shapes. Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, Russian-born scientists working at the University of Manchester in the U.K. discovered graphene through a repeated process of peeling layers away from graphite using Scotch tape. By applying this surprisingly simple approach enough times, the layer of carbon material was reduced to a single atom of thickness. (Geim and Novoselov together received the 2010 Nobel prize in physics for their work in this area.) From there, these scientists (and many others) investigated the unique electrical, thermal and chemical properties of the material, along the way conceiving of numerous potential applications.
The chemical structure of graphene is highly stable, resulting in “the thinnest and strongest substance known to science—about 100 times stronger than steel by weight,” according to the U.K.’s Independent. The material is sometimes called “two dimensional”: although in reality it does exist in three dimensions (its thickness, although tiny, is still greater than zero), it is so thin (one atom) that it behaves in many ways like a two-dimensional substance. The Independent also notes that graphene is a good electrical conductor and the best-known thermal conductor. It even exhibits unique quantum properties. In addition, graphene is flexible and nearly transparent.
Combining all these interesting properties in a single material, graphene is clearly fodder for innovators looking to address problems in new (and profitable) ways. And they haven’t disappointed: graphene has been proffered as a means of creating flexible electronics such as flash-memory chips; purifying water using much less energy than traditional reverse-osmosis processes; drug delivery and cancer therapy; coatings that reduce or eliminate corrosion of metals (rust); stronger, lighter touchscreens and other displays; and on and on. Graphene is essentially being promoted as the plastic of the twenty-first century, with applications as diverse and amazing as the human mind can invent. But is all the hype just that: hype?
Graphene Wouldn’t Be the First
Technologies come and go. Fortunately or unfortunately, amazing properties and even uses are not enough to drive adoption of a particular technology. In addition to its capabilities, it must be economical at some level if it is to be successful. Not every technology need become as ubiquitous as the personal computer (and, now, increasingly the smartphone/tablet), but it must offer sufficient value to consumers or companies to justify the investments in its adoption.
For instance, graphene offers some properties that could be useful in electronics. On the other hand, it lacks a bandgap (such as is found in silicon), meaning it cannot be a “drop-in” replacement for traditional semiconductors. Even if it did offer similar properties (or if it just has some characteristics that make it beneficial in electronics applications), it could still fail to reach marketability. Part of the problem is momentum. Companies like Intel invest billions of dollars in fabrication facilities to manufacture semiconductor devices; using a new material (such as graphene) would require either construction of a new facility or a radical retooling of an existing facility. In either case, the price tag would be comparable to, if not much greater than, new-fab construction. Flexible CPUs or some similar novel application might simply lack the commercial appeal needed to justify such gargantuan investments.
To break into the market (and thus avoid being tossed into history’s technology trash bin), graphene must do more than provide incremental benefits over existing, entrenched technologies. This is the challenge that many new innovations face: they must be more than just nifty ideas.
A Niche Material?
Graphene’s unique properties, however, suggest that it still has potential to enable valuable uses. Although it may not become the next silicon, it could find application in more novel areas that make specific use of its strengths, rather than serving in contexts where its strengths are simply incremental feature upgrades.
The potential use of graphene as a water filter is interesting, both from a business and a humanitarian standpoint. Most of the world’s water is unsuitable for consumption, but what if graphene significantly reduced the cost of desalinating seawater? A research group at MIT is investigating this possibility, using graphene perforated with tiny holes. A graphene-based water filter wouldn’t be just a system whereby water is poured through a membrane and potable water quickly comes out on the other side—instead, it would probably involve reducing the cost (by way of energy input) of reverse-osmosis-style filtration.
Other niche uses, both in and beyond the data center/IT realm, have been proposed or are under investigation. Few, however, have emerged as distinct possibilities from a commercial standpoint. Nevertheless, graphene is the subject of extensive research interest. The number of patents on uses of the material now exceeds 7,000, “with the largest number—more than 2,000—held by China. Samsung alone holds more than 400,” according to the BBC. Governments are also investing (other people’s money, unfortunately) in this area.
Hopes are certainly high that research into graphene will result in new, marketable applications that exploit the material’s unique properties. These hopes are backed by significant investment in this research, as well as in patents. Real, workable applications of graphene may not involve well-established areas like semiconductors (particularly, silicon as the main material in computer chips), but they may appear in niche areas.
It’s difficult to imagine graphene meeting the hyped standard that has been set for it—a standard in which almost every product imaginable uses graphene in some respect. Such expectations are almost certainly the offspring of an overhyped technology. Although complete pessimism is uncalled for, new technologies should generally be treated as interesting (but not really valuable) until proven marketable. Graphene, despite all its promise, has yet to prove it can meet this test—but it’s certainly worth watching.
Photo courtesy of CORE-Materials