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What Is Graphene, Anyway?

Graphene - Superpowered?
Graphene – Superpowered?

We’ve covered graphene on this site a number of times, but of course, what is it? Where does it come from? What does it do? Can you buy it? Will it give you superpowers?

Well, as far as giving you superpowers, I’m not sure we’ve gotten that far in our development as a species to handle such a thing. On the other hand, graphene seems to have some pretty nifty superpowers of its own, in spite of its beguiling simplicity as a molecule. Physically-speaking, graphene is a monolayer nanomaterial, a single-atom-thick two-dimensional lattice of pure carbon. Carbon, in various molecular configurations, also gives us the world’s hardest and softest naturally-occurring materials, diamond and graphite, respectively.

On its own, graphene is said to be stronger than steel by about 200 times, for its weight. An elephant balanced on a pencil would just barely be able to puncture a graphene sheet as thick as plastic wrap, ≈12.7 µm, anything else, for comparison, would be comparable to wet tissue paper. As far as graphene’s superpowers go, these usually surface when graphene is combined with other elements. For example, Chinese researchers recently discovered that a saltwater droplet running across the surface of a graphene sheet generates up to 30 mV. Sulfur-graphene oxide might give lithium-sulfur batteries a real shot at viability in electric vehicles. Graphene might revolutionize the world, at least the part that runs on semiconductor technology, from smartphones to computers and everything that depends on a chip, more powerful and more efficient than their silicon-based counterparts.

Graphene may have only been isolated in the last decade or so, but researchers are constantly coming up with new applications. One problem, however, is the expense. Graphene can actually be made by pulling typical cellophane tape off a piece of graphite, but it isn’t very useful as such. Researchers are working hard to develop a viable method of graphene production, but it may take years to bring prices down from about $60/in2. That must be an industrial price, because, on eBay, I found graphene on copper for $125/in2. Researchers suggest that graphene needs to get down to about $1/in2 for use in semiconductor applications, maybe down to 10¢/in2 for touchscreen applications.

Photo credit: Mick Statham / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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