Graphene will change just about everything

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Technology has been under attack for years. It is no longer seen as the vanguard of progress, but as its nemesis. The fault is the general assault on free markets by intellectuals but the 21st century is already showing signs that they may need new arguments.

The reason new anti-technology thinking needs revision is a recent scientific and increasingly technological triumph that is set to change the way of, well, just about everything.

It’s called graphene. It was discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two scientists from Manchester University in England. It won them a Nobel prize in 2010.

How did they do it? They applied sticky tape to a block of graphite, pulling away a layer of graphene. Since then far easier and better ways of doing it have come along.

Outside the scientific community few know of graphene. It has truly remarkable properties. It is one atom thick. Despite this, it is the world’s strongest material, harder than diamond and 100 times tougher than steel. It is also a better conductor of electricity than copper.

That’s right. It’s one atom thick – in effect two-dimensional – having length and width but no depth, so thin it is almost invisible. Strong as it is, graphene can stretch like rubber. It doesn’t corrode. It’s immune to acid and alkaline.

Graphene can be woven into a fine web rather like a super-fine sieve, and there are so many thousands of other potential uses for it that it boggles the mind.

Take uploading to or downloading from the internet. Huge amounts of data could take seconds. Your cellphone would also charge phenomenally fast.

Everything now constructed with carbon fibre will be thousands of times lighter and much, much stronger as well. Airplanes made with graphene would be lighter and more fuel efficient.

Pollution scares such as the leaks into the sea at Fukushima? No longer. Graphene is so fine it could scoop it all up.

Think of a water filter so finely constructed that it could sieve out salts. Then consider the ocean. We would never ever run out of clean water. We could even clean salt-damaged soil.

No more wailing and gnashing of teeth about running short of arable land. Graphene may allow us to use deserts.

Multi-purpose invention

Even paraplegics might benefit. Some think it could be used to bridge the gap in a broken spinal cord.

What should please the Greens is that the cost of photovoltaic panels could drop dramatically and the efficiency (not at all good now) could improve to the same extent. Super-thin graphene PV panels could make electricity generation from window panes practical.

PV panels made of carbon are possible with a potential ability to generate 10 000 times more energy than fossil fuels. With super-efficient PV panels and lighter, more efficient batteries, why build monster power stations anymore?

Another boost for environmentalists is that graphene-based batteries would be lighter and much more efficient in storing electricity. They might even make electric cars less polluting.

Such cars would probably still fall out of favour as graphene turns out to be a super-lightweight hydrogen store. This will make hydrogen fuel tanks capable of holding more fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells that provide electricity with a by-product of water and hydrogen would also get a boost, making small-scale non-polluting generators likely.

Graphene sensors could be used to diagnose diseases. Capacitors could take over from batteries and recharge in a fraction of the time. Graphene sensors could detect explosives and make transistors hugely more efficient. These are just a few of the possibilities of this remarkable substance.

Right now the race for global patents is on. The big boys are on to the possibilities. Samsung leads, followed by IBM. As far as countries are concerned, China is winning, the US is second and South Korea is third. There are more than 5 000 patents either pending or given. Meanwhile, developments using this fabulous new material are continuing. Will they change the world? You can bet on it. It has to happen. Technology doesn’t stop changing and neither do scientists stop experimenting.

Keith Bryer is a retired public relations consultant.


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