It’s not often that anyone speaks highly of carbon, given the part that element plays in climate change. But a growing number of companies are eagerly promoting carbon in one specific form: It’s called graphene, and it is said to be the strongest, thinnest and most flexible material ever discovered.
First isolated by a British university in 2004, this so-called "wonder product" has sparked a multi-million dollar corporate scramble to exploit the breakthrough.
“This is akin to the invention of silicon or plastics,” says Jon Mabbit of Applied Graphene Materials (AGM), a small start-up in northeast England that has joined the great graphene rush. “This is a disruptive technology. It has the potential to revolutionize countless markets.”
One atom thick, the substance is so thin that it’s regarded as two-dimensional. And it has an impressive list of other properties: 100 times stronger than steel; far more flexible than rubber; the world’s best conductor of heat and electricity; almost totally transparent and yet completely impermeable. Among the uses touted: super-fast computer chips; cellphones you can roll up like a piece of paper and stuff into your pocket; and super-thin condoms.
But the graphene “prospectors” face some major hurdles.
“There’s an enormous leap between what you can do in the laboratory and having a product that is technologically ready," says Valerie Jamieson of New Scientist magazine. "Graphene’s been stymied by the difficulty of making large sheets of the stuff. A tiny flaw can impair the product’s conductivity, making it useless in electronics."
Jamieson is also concerned about cost. Graphene sheets cost $60 per square inch to produce but that needs to come down to $1 a square inch for use in computer chips, and 10 cents for touch screen displays. And there’s another, strategic worry: the vast bulk of the graphite from which graphene naturally derives would have to be mined in China.
But Mabbitt of AGM reckons that his company has cracked some of those problems. He and his colleagues have developed a method of synthesizing the substance out of cheap alcohol, so there is no need to dig it out of the ground at great expense. The company claims it can grow a ton of graphene a year with one relatively small piece of equipment. And they’re not turning out sheets for use in consumer electronics, so tiny flaws don’t matter. They aim to use their graphene as an additive to paints and lubricants.
"The impermeability of graphene makes it fantastic for stopping moisture attacking a ship’s hull," says Mabbitt. "It also prevents sea-life from building up on the hull. So potentially you have a rust and barnacle-free vessel. That gives you a double whammy: low-maintenance and improved efficiency through water, which equates to fuel-saving."
Graphene-coated aircraft – he says – would be both lighter and lightning proof. He believes the range of industrial applications for graphene is enormous. Not as sexy as roll-up cell phones and ultra-thin condoms, perhaps, but a wonder material nevertheless.