Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strongest material ever, just an atom thick, set to change our world

Remember that iconic scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman, as Ben Braddock, a new college graduate, is taken aside by his parents' friend Mr. McGuire, who has "just one word" of advice for the young man's future? Of course that word was "plastics."

And indeed, since then everything from car bumpers to dental floss holders is made from the ubiquitous product.

Now the watchword is "Graphene." My spell-checker doesn't know what that is, but soon everyone will, as this thinnest material known, derived from pencil lead graphite--or "synthesized using carbon from sources as diverse as grass, Girl Scout Cookies and cockroach legs" will soon revolutionize just about everything. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal left me agog about graphene's properties. It's one of the world's best conductors of heat and electricity, absorbs and emits light over a broader range of wavelengths than any other, and is the hardest, thinnest, lightest and most stretchable material ever found.

How about printing circuits with graphene ink? That would allow "flexible phones and
electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket" or wrap around a wrist. Or, because of graphene's ability to carry electronic charges without any mass (called "the anomalous quantum Hall effect") combined with its chemical properties, it could attach to cancer cells and zap them in the body. Or, because graphene is so strong, combined with plastics it would produce very light airplanes and cars. It can be used as a filter to desalinize sea water. It can be attached to a mini tone-maker to become a flat-keyed piano.

Nobel winners Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov; graphene pattern
Researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester, England isolated graphene in 2004 by pulling apart layers in thin pieces of graphite using sticky tape. They finally got the layer down to a single atom's breadth, and found a flexible honeycomb pattern that is stronger than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel. The illustration they give is that a graphene line the thickness of a human hair could easily suspend a piano.

The research group received the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on the substance. So far, 9,218 patents have been applied for or granted. Many tech companies like Samsung, Nokia, Apple, IBM and Lockheed have multiple patents; Dozens of universities including Cambridge, Columbia, Rice and Harvard and Sungkyunkwan in South Korea are engaged in graphene research. Georgia Intstitute of Technology grad student Mike Sprinkle produces an up-to-date compendium of research on graphene, the Graphene Times.

The manufacture of graphene is still too expensive and delicate for immediate industrial use, but its potential is so wide-ranging and revolutionary that scientists and companies are scrambling to be the first to apply it, and make its production economical.  Another issue was that scientists couldn't figure out how to build in an on-off switch in a one-atom-thick material. They'd tried by fusing two layers of graphene, putting a gap for the switch between them, but it never quite worked. Last week Berkeley Labs' Aaron Bostwick found that the fusing of the two layers caused an eensy misalignment that now they'll be able to account for. This type of discovery is happening on hundreds of graphene fronts, in labs world-wide, which makes me hopeful that graphene-containing products will hit the market in just two or three years.

In the meantime, I'm reminded of the miracle of man's industry, of our God-like power to imagine and then create. Technological change seems to be accelerating, with the benefits more quickly and widely shared and spread. Makes me humble and grateful and excited to see what's to come. Here's an informative video by Jonathan Hare, if you're scientifically inclined.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story and well-written article, Dr Medved! I'm always surprised when it takes years for groundbreaking discoveries to start gaining traction with the public.