Home Tech Thin as a wafer, elastic and strong as steel: could graphene, a “miracle” material, finally transform our world?

Thin as a wafer, elastic and strong as steel: could graphene, a “miracle” material, finally transform our world?

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Thin as a wafer, elastic and strong as steel: could graphene, a "miracle" material, finally transform our world?

Twenty years ago, scientists announced that they had created a miraculous new material that was going to transform our lives. They called it graphene.

Consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, it is one of the strongest materials ever made and, for good measure, is a better conductor of electricity and heat than copper.

The prospects for revolutionizing technology seemed endless and a new generation of ultra-fast processors and computers were predicted. Reports say it could allow batteries to charge five times faster and make concrete 35% stronger.

It was even proposed as a solution to potholes; Just mix it with traditional surfacing material and the curse of modern driving will be eradicated, he claimed.

Graphene was discovered by University of Manchester professors Andre Geim (left) and Konstantin Novoselov. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

The University of Manchester scientists who discovered it, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 and a National Graphene Institute was created at the university.

But enthusiasm for this miracle material has decreased significantly. Graphene has yet to spark an electronics revolution; The bumps are still with us.

So what happened to the graphene revolution? Why hasn’t it transformed our world? Sir Colin Humphreys, professor of materials science at Queen Mary University of London, has a simple answer: “Graphene remains a very promising material. The problem has been increasing its production. That is why it has not had the impact that was anticipated.”

Graphene was originally made in a rather unusual way, Humphreys explained. Geim and Novoselov created it by putting tape on pieces of graphite and peeling off the layers until they got one that was the thickness of an atom.

“But it would only be a small flake, a few millimeters in diameter,” he added. “You can’t make electronic devices with waste like that. For the devices to work, you must have at least 6-inch material wafers. So IBM, Samsung and Intel spent billions trying to ramp up graphene production to produce it in useful shapes and quantities, with little success.”

As a result, the graphene revolution was put on hold, although there have recently been encouraging signs that the technology could soon regain much of its original promise.

Humphreys believes the market could soon be revitalized thanks to advances in manufacturing graphene-based devices. A key breakthrough in this push was made by Humphreys and his colleagues, who realized that the technology used to make gallium nitride electronics could be exploited to produce graphene on a large scale.

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Andy Murray with a graphene tennis racket. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

“We used some of the first graphene we made this way to create a sensor that can detect magnetic fields,” said Humphreys, who has since created a spin-off company, Paragraf, with his team.

Based in the Cambridgeshire village of Somersham, it has now become one of the first companies in the world to mass produce graphene-based devices. Two reactors, shaped like pizza ovens, now produce enough graphene to make 150,000 devices a day.

Paragraf uses them in two ways: first, to make sensors that measure magnetic fields. These can be used to detect malfunctioning batteries in electric bicycles and scooters, preventing fires.

The second type of sensor can differentiate between bacterial and viral infections, showing whether antibiotics would be an appropriate treatment. “We also think we could use our biosensors to detect whether someone has sepsis or not, within minutes,” Humphreys said.

Also important is the fact that graphene devices likely consume less power than current devices, he added.

“The silicon era is coming to an end. We have reached the limit of the number of transistors we can fit on a single chip, while the energy they consume doubles every three years.

“And that means that if nothing happens, and we continue as we are, silicon devices will consume all the world’s electricity generation, which is a huge threat to our net zero aspirations.

“Graphene technology may have arrived later than we originally expected, but it has the potential to solve these problems and make a real difference to modern life.”

Graphene “has the potential to make a real difference to modern life”, says materials science professor Sir Colin Humphreys. Photography: AddMeshCube/Alamy

Publicized science that failed to make the grade

  • The nuclear energy “Our children will enjoy electric power in their homes that is too cheap to measure” – Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

  • The Sinclair C5 “This is the future of transportation”: Promotional material for the Sinclair C5 electric scooter/car in 1985. First year sales of 100,000 were predicted, but only 5,000 were sold. The project was abandoned.

  • Medical advances “It is time to close the book on infectious diseases and declare the war against pestilence won,” attributed to Dr. William H. Stewart, surgeon general of the United States between 1965 and 1969.

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