- Graphene has a series of properties never before found in any other material.
- Transparent, flexible, foldable and rollable computer screens that can be converted into telephones or diversified into other kinds of screens are about to become a reality.
- Aeronautics, medicine, telecommunications, energy production … graphene will be present and will bring about improvements in every area of life.
Scientific and industrial circles around the world are fascinated by a new material which, thanks to its extraordinary properties and great number of practical applications, will unquestionably change many aspects of our lives: graphene.
What Makes Graphene So Extraordinary?
This is a transparent, ultra-thin (the finest possible), very light (0.77 mg per square metre), impermeable, elastic, flexible and also astonishingly resistant material. Graphene is the best conductor of electricity yet discovered and, in addition, is abundantly available in nature, which makes it inexpensive as well.
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Furthermore, researchers at the University of Manchester have recently discovered that it undergoes a “self-repairing” process. In other words, if the structure of a sheet of this material is broken, graphene attracts around the hole the carbon atoms it needs to re-knit its distinctive structure.
Graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms (which is to say it is only one atom thick) arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern. It occurs naturally in graphite which is extracted from coal mines and used to make such products as pencils and brake linings for cars. However, it can also be synthesised.
In chemical terms, graphene is a carbon allotrope, in the form of a hexagonal tessellation (resembling honeycomb) consisting of carbon atoms joined by covalent bonds formed by the superposition of sp2 hybrids of the bonded carbon atoms.
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Interview with K. Novoselov, one of the discoverers of graphene.
Graphene was discovered in 2004 by the Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov but it was not until 2010, when the two researchers received the Nobel Prize for Physics, that “graphene fever” began.
The astonishing versatility of graphene means that it has numerous commercial applications. These, in fact, are almost infinite. The list keeps growing and growing. Some are itemised below.
- Hard drives that can store 1,000 times more information.
- Semiconductors on which the ultra-fast computers of the future will be based (replacing silicone).
- Flexible (rollable and foldable) and extremely thin screens, which can be used as the basis for producing a range of devices. They can also incorporate such systems as contactless payment.
- Night vision cameras for taking photographs and filming without light.
- Longer lasting batteries for mobile phones, computers and electric cars (and, with graphene electrodes, they last ten times longer, for example, than those presently being used for charging mobile phones).
- New ultra-fast telecommunications networks.
- Ultracapacitors (used for cars and electric trains and also to improve the performance of electrical power distribution lines).
- Aeronautical applications: planes that will fly much faster and also cut greenhouse gas emissions.
- Powerful solar panels with an efficiency of 42% (in comparison those presently being used, which convert only 16% of solar energy into electricity).
- OLED (Organic LED) television sets made of more sustainable and environmentally friendly organic materials.
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Video showing the applications of graphene (Source: neoteo.com).
- Energy-efficient membranes for natural gas production, which reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plant exhaust pipes.
- Cutting energy costs of separating gas in the production of plastics and fuels.
- Medical applications such as designing new anti-cancer vaccines and tooth tattoo sensors to detect diseases.
As if all this were not enough, graphene also acts as an excellent basis for creating new “custom-made” materials in response to specific needs. Elsa Prada, a researcher at the Madrid-based Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales (Institute of Materials Science), a branch of CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) – and who has worked with Novoselov – calls attention to fluorographene (a two-dimensional counterpart of Teflon, with extraordinary insulation and lubricant qualities), hexagonal boron nitride (a transparent, highly resistant crystalline insulating material which, combined with graphene, improves its electromechanical properties), molybdenum disulphide (another two-dimensional crystal with properties that are promising for the construction of a new type of transistors) and silicene (a two-dimensional allotrope of silicon, similar to graphene and sharing some properties with it, which could easily be integrated into silicon-based electronics).
Graphene in Spain and the European Union’s Flagship Programme
Spain has top-ranking researchers who are studying and working with graphene. The Spanish node of the European Union’s Flagship Project is one of the most active at present. The San Sebastian-based company Graphenea, the EU’s foremost graphene producer, is one of the partners in the project, together with other enterprises including Philips, Varta, Nokia, ST Microelectronics, Repsol, Alcatel-Lucent and Airbus. Moreover, the construction of one of the world’s biggest graphene-producing plants will soon begin in the municipality of Yecla (Murcia, Spain).
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Video describing the European Union’s Flagship project
Some Difficulties Now Being Rectified
The processes involved in extracting graphene from graphite are still quite complex as is achieving the required degree of purity in each case, in accordance with the needs of the application for which the material is to be used. Nevertheless, remedying these problems is only a matter of time: constant advances are being made as attested to in the regular references appearing in publications like Science and Nature.
CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas – Spanish National Research Council)
MIT(Massachusetts Institute of Technology).