Graphene Begins to Unleash the Real Promise of Nanomaterials

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Graphene Begins to Unleash the Real Promise of Nanomaterials

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms derived from graphite. But that humble description belies how truly incredible this substance is.

Graphene is the world's strongest material; it is 200 times stronger than steel. It is also the world's thinnest substance, at one-millionth the width of a sheet of paper.

Combining these two properties means that, as one newspaper explained, a square meter of graphene could be made into a hammock that would be strong enough to hold a nine-pound cat, while weighing no more than one of its whiskers.

Graphene is also extremely flexible and stretchable. It conducts both heat and electricity better than any known material. It is nearly transparent. It filters out every type of gas, while allowing water to flow through it.

For all these reasons, graphene promises to be a game-changer in many industries. While most people are still unaware of what it can do, scientists have been making slow but steady progress toward the commercial development of this "wonder material" for nearly a century.

In 1916, the structure of graphite was identified, and 31 years later a researcher named P.R. Walter theorized about the existence of graphene.1

Not long after that, researchers were able to see single layers of graphene under an electron microscope. But there remained no practical way to isolate graphene and use it commercially.

Then, in 2004, at the University of Manchester, scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov made a major breakthrough: Working with flakes of bulk graphite, they used pieces of sticky Scotch tape to peel off layers at a time, then kept repeating the process until they were left with a single layer, with a thickness of just one atom, which they then transferred to a silicon wafer. For this work, Geim and Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Now that graphene can be isolated, the only hurdle that remains to exploiting its infinite potential in countless applications is that the process to create just a small amount of graphene is still prohibitively expensive. So today the race is on to find ways to manufacture graphene cheaply and in large quantities.

One method that is being explored involves electrolysis. This approach involves pumping lithium ions between layers of graphite in order to make it easier to separate each layer of graphene from the others.2

Another experimental method involves writing graphene circuitry with ion pens...

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