Graphene Goes Gangbusters

By Jonathan Marshall

To a chemist, “organic” doesn’t mean pesticide-free. It refers to compounds containing carbon atoms. By that test, there’s nothing more organic than graphene—a miracle substance made up of a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in flat hexagons like chicken wire.

First created in 2004 by scientists who won a Nobel Prize only six years later, graphene has just been discovered floating in outer space.

As previously recounted in NEXT100, graphene has a host of exciting properties, including phenomenal strength and superb conductivity. It’s being considered for everything from super-fast, low-power computers, to making jet fuels and even mapping the human genome. New discoveries keep expanding the list of possible attributes and uses:

  • A team at Rice University reports that graphene films could “revolutionize touch-screen displays, solar panels and LED lighting.” Because it’s so strong and flexible, “the breakthrough could lead to computers that wrap around the wrist and solar cells that wrap around just about anything.”
  • Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that embedding tiny quantities of tin in graphene sheets makes an oustanding component material for high-performance lithium-ion batteries. Graphene helps prevent the tin nanostructures from breaking down under repeated chemical reactions, given them much longer life.
  • Still other teams at the University of Texas at Austin, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Nanotek Instruments are investigating ways to use graphene to create new supercapacitors that store unprecedented amounts of energy for use in high-power applications.
  • At the Photonics Institute in Vienna, Austria, researchers showed that graphene can convert light pulses into electrical signals at a rate of more than 260 billion per second, opening the door to much faster data exchanges between computers.

Researchers are also making great strides in making commercial quantities of graphene, since traditional lab techniques are onerous and collecting it from outer space is bound to be a bit expensive. At Northern Illinois University, scientists have found a “simple, green and cost-effective” way to produce graphene by burning magnesium. A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory figured out how to use hydrogen to make graphene with “perfect hexagonal shapes” and a “faultless single crystal structure.” They modestly call their technique “a major breakthrough toward graphene implementation in real-world devices.”

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