A Super-Material Becomes More Superlative

Graphene, a super-material discovered only six years ago at the University of Manchester, keeps getting more and more superlative as scientists continue to probe its surprising properties.

Consisting of a honeycomb of carbon atoms a mere one atom thick, it’s one of the strongest and stiffest substances known. Researchers are investigating its possible uses in an amazing variety of applications, including ultracompact integrated circuits, touchscreens, light-emitting diodes, ultra-high-capacity energy storage devices, and even the detection of microbes.

Within just the past few months, teams of scientists have published papers on the use of graphene in structural components for fuel-efficient, ultralight cars and aircraft, as super-small electrodes to measure electrical signals from single cells, to read the sequence of DNA molecules, to produce transistors with more than twice the switching speed of the fastest silicon devices, and to “dramatically improve the power and cycling stability” of lithium-ion batteries.

But here’s the rub: graphene won’t really qualify as a super-material until it becomes less super-hard to make.

The British and Russian researchers who first discovered graphene did so—I kid you not—by ripping layers of carbon atoms off blocks of graphite with Scotch tape. That doesn’t qualify as a high-volume production technique.

As late as 2008, according to Wikipedia, a sample the size of a human hair cost more than $1,000, making graphene one of the most expensive materials on the planet.

Since then, several companies have begun limited commercial production, but supplies are still hard to get. That’s why recent announcements of new production breakthroughs are as exciting as new discoveries about the material itself.

For example, a team at Rice University recently said it found a way to use powerful sulfuric acid to make solutions of graphene 10 times more concentrated than ever before, without degrading its properties. This technique may allow graphene to be used in structural materials for the first time.

Meanwhile, a dispersed group of researchers from Germany, China and the United States this month reported a new, commercially viable way to build graphene transistors from the bottom up, assembling molecular parts to form working circuits. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are reporting success with using chemical vapor deposition techniques, widely used in the semiconductor industry, to create graphene transistors.

Finally, engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology last month announced a “simple, robust and reproducible technique” for creating conducting nanowires in graphene, a great advance in its use in electronics.

And to think it all started with a piece of Scotch tape.

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