Graphene Carbon (The Basis of All Life on Earth) Promises to Change the Future of Technology

Graphene-nanobubble-structure_1 The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday to University of Manchester professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work isolating graphene from graphite and identifying its behavior. Graphene, a one-atom thick sheet of carbon densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice, is the thinnest, strongest material ever discovered. It conducts heat and electricity, and despite being one atom thick, is so dense even helium cannot pass through it. As the Swedish Academy of Sciences said in the Nobel Prize announcement: "Carbon, the basis of all known life on earth, has surprised us once again."

Oddly, they peeled the graphene off of a graphite crystal using Scotch tape. However, their work from that moment on has already had a huge effect on materials science.

Since its discovery just a few years ago, graphene has climbed to the top of the list of new super-materials poised to transform the electronics and nanotechnology landscape. The two-dimensional honeycomb structure of carbon atoms is exceptionally strong and versatile. Its unusual properties make it ideal for applications that are pushing the existing limits of microchips, chemical sensing instruments, biosensors, ultracapacitance devices, flexible displays and other innovations.

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Graphene is remarkable in terms of thinness and resiliency. A one-atom thick graphene sheet sufficient in size to cover a football field, would weigh less than a gram. It is also the strongest material in nature—roughly 200 times the strength of steel. Most of the excitement however, has to do with the unusual electronic properties of the material.

Graphene displays outstanding electron transport, permitting electricity to flow rapidly and more or less unimpeded through the material. In fact, electrons have been shown to behave as massless particles similar to photons, zipping across a graphene layer without scattering. 

This property is critical for many device applications and has prompted speculation that graphene could eventually supplant silicon as the substance of choice for computer chips, offering the prospect of ultrafast computers operating at terahertz speeds, rocketing past current gigahertz chip technology. Yet, despite encouraging progress, a thorough understanding of graphene’s electronic properties has remained elusive. 

The sensitivity of graphene’s single atomic layer geometry and low capacitance promise a significant boost for biosensor applications. Any biological substance that interacts with graphene’s single atom surface layer can be detected, causing a huge change in the properties of the electrons.

Ultracapacitors made of graphene composites would be capable of storing much larger amounts of renewable energy from solar, wind or wave energy than current technologies permit.

Because of graphene’s planar geometry, it may be more compatible with conventional electronic devices than other materials, including the much-vaunted carbon nanotubes. Since the discovery of graphene, the hunt has been on for similar two-dimensional crystal lattices, though so far, graphene remains an anomoly.

Casey Kazan via materials provided by Arizona State University.

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