In 2004, two scientists at the University of Manchester in England isolated a carbon-based material called graphene, with some unusual properties. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov hailed it as 'the wonder material of the 21st century,' and they were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. Scientists now say that someday, graphene may change the way we live.
Graphene is the first man-made two-dimensional material. It is actually only a one-atom-thick layer of pure carbon. It is closely related to nanotubes, and microscopic graphite balls called fullerenes.
Graphene is basically graphite, like the core of pencils, but its neatly-arranged and tightly-woven atoms make it 200 times stronger than a steel sheet of the same thickness.
Myriad positive qualities
The leader of the graphene research team at Manchester University, Aravind Vijayaraghavan, said incredible strength is not its only quality.
"It's bendable, stretchable, transparent, super light. The best conductor of heat, the best conductor of electricity. It's not just one thing that makes it amazing, it's in fact all these things rolled into one," said Vijayaraghavan.
The potential of graphene is practically unlimited. It can be used in cancer therapy, in flexible touchscreens, or for batteries that will charge in seconds. Top tennis players Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray use graphene-based racquets.
But being so thin, graphene also is extremely hard to handle, like the transparent cellulose used for wrapping food.
"It gets everywhere, it crinkles up, it sticks to everything," said Vijayaraghavan.
Because of that, large-scale production is still decades away, said George Mason University Engineering professor Dimitris Ioannou, speaking via Skype. “The real bottleneck is to find out the technique to make large area graphene layers and that’s not yet possible, I don’t think, but there is a lot of research going on,” he said.
Ioannou said someday, graphene may be very useful for smartphone displays, supercapacitors and nanoantennas for nanomachines that could talk to each other.
Britain and the European Union are building a $140-million National Graphene Institute in Manchester, while there are already close to 10,000 patents worldwide related to the new material.