Everything you always wanted to know about graphene but were afraid to ask

Graphene is a one-atom thick layer of graphite with remarkable properties. It is exceptionally strong, lightweight, flexible, and allows electrons to flow faster than silicon. It is the golden (well, grey) egg of nanotechnology.

GrapheneGraphene (like diamond) is an alternative form of carbon in which carbon atoms are arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern. Among its well-publicised superlative properties, a 1-square-meter sheet weighs just 0.77 milligrams.

Originally thought to be unstable in its free state, graphene proved to be quite the opposite when isolated by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester in 2003. The results of their work heralded a new dawn in the study of two dimensional materials and grapheme in particular for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2010.

  • Graphene’s excellent electrical conductivity has led to its use in prototype supercapacitors, but scaling up these devices proved a challenge. Now, a team of researchers from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea has solved the problem by turning graphene into tiny three-dimensional orbs.
  • Using graphene “paper” and electron “ink”, Danish and Chinese scientists have created one of the tiniest data storage methods ever devised. This technique could eventually be used as a means of nanoscale data storage (e.g. storing the entire Library of Congress on a single gram of graphene), or to create graphene-based computer circuits.
  • Researchers in Singapore have reported that they’ve created a graphene photodetector that is around 10 times more sensitive than the sensors in today’s digital cameras. Graphene has a very sensitive, hot carrier response to light and both of these properties make it ideal for camera sensors, photovoltaic cells, and fiber-optic communications.
  • Every day large amounts of information are transmitted through optoelectronic devices such as optical fibres, photodetectors and lasers. Signals are sent by photons at infrared wavelengths and processed using optical switches, which convert signals into a series of light pulses. Ordinarily, optical switches respond at rate of a few picoseconds – around a trillionth of a second. Using a few layers of graphene increases that rate to around a hundred times quicker than current materials.

NanoNanotechnology (or “nanotech”) is one of the most exciting scientific fields out there. The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometres. A nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre.

Scientists are still debating the future of nanotechnology. Nothing can be taken for granted and caution is crucial when it comes to testing and regulating its products. But many new materials like graphene will surely be discovered and result in many new applications.

As the English poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote:

“In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures, life may perfect be.”

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