Have you heard of graphene?
This is a blog about why graphene may be the next multibillion-dollar material, holding the key to computing, healthcare and energy storage.
What is graphene?
Graphene is a pure form of carbon that is very thin, very strong and very expensive.
When I say thin, I mean VERY thin – graphene is one atom thick (almost transparent).
And when I say strong, I mean VERY strong. For its very low weight, it is 100 times stronger than steel, as stiff as a diamond, and yet also flexible and even stretchable.
But its other characteristics are most interesting. It conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency (faster at room temperature than any other known material), and it charges and discharges 100x to 1000x faster than traditional batteries.
Right now, it’s expensive.
Nature reported in 2013 that just one micrometer-sized flake made in this [original] way can cost more than $1,000 — making graphene, gram for gram, one of the most expensive materials on Earth.
However, as mass production increases, there is potential for a 70% to 80% price drop, making graphene production much more economical. Chemical vapor deposition (CVD), for example, has brought the cost down to about $100,000 per square meter.
Estimates suggest that the graphene market will be $149.1 million by 2020, registering a CAGR of 44.0% from 2014 to 2020.
The European Union has also created a flagship program for graphene, allocating about $1.3 billion to spend on the development of graphene over the next 10 years.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Why is graphene useful?
Graphene’s unique properties are valuable in many different industries and applications.
Here are seven of the most exciting examples:
- Energy Storage: Graphene may hold the key to an energy storage revolution (which changes everything). Batteries can store lots of energy, but they are large, clunky, and charge and discharge relatively slowly. Capacitors, on the other hand, can’t hold a lot of energy but they charge and discharge very quickly. Researchers out of Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology have developed highly porous graphene-based supercapacitors that they, “can fully charge in just 16 seconds and have repeated this some 10,000 times without a significant reduction in capacitance.” Imagine charging your iPhone in 30 seconds, or your Tesla in a few minutes.
- Flexible Screens: Graphene is transparent (it transmits up to 97.7% of light), and it also has low electrical resistance and is flexible. Therefore, it’s a good candidate for flexible electronics and screens. Samsung, for example, are developing transparent graphene electrodes to serve as smartphone touchscreens. The indium-tin oxide electrodes in use today are brittle; graphene is strong and flexible. We will see it in flexible digital e-paper and even embedded into clothing and fabrics.
- Desalinization/Filtration: Graphene behaves strangely around water. Water can pass through it, but almost nothing else can. Graphene is also much stronger and less brittle than aluminum-oxide (currently used in sub-100nm filtration applications). This makes it a good candidate for water filtration systems, desalination systems (Lockheed claims a graphene filter would reduce energy costs of reverse osmosis desalination by 99%), and efficient and economically more viable biofuel creation.
- Medical Applications/Sensors: Jesus de la Fuente, the CEO of Graphenea, suggests, “With graphene offering a large surface area, high electrical conductivity, thinness and strength, it would make a good candidate for the development of fast and efficient bioelectric sensory devices, with the ability to monitor such things as glucose levels, hemoglobin levels, cholesterol and even DNA sequencing.”
- Photovoltaics/Solar cells: De la Fuente also sees benefits for solar cells: “Offering very low levels of light absorption (at around 2.7% of white light) whilst also offering high electron mobility means that graphene can be used as an alternative to silicon or ITO in the manufacture of photovoltaic cells.”
- Material Composites: Graphene is strong, stiff and very light. It could eventually replace steel and carbon composites in everything from aircraft to cars to body armor for the military. It is actually already used in tennis rackets today.
- Computing/Electronics: Graphene has the potential to also impact the $300 billion semiconductor industry. Its unique structure and “extremely mobile electrons could allow graphene transistors to process data at very high rates, with some devices already clocking in at more than 400 gigahertz — many times faster than comparable silicon devices.” Alternatively, graphene photodetectors could also “allow computer chips to communicate with light rather than comparatively sluggish, energy-wasting electrons — an advance that would cut power consumption and allow computers to handle data more efficiently.”
If you’re interested in investing or learning more, the following companies are developing graphene solutions: ACS Material LLC., Angstron Material, Bluestone Global Tech, CVD Equipment Corporation, Graphene Laboratories, Graphene Nanochem PLC, Graphenea, Haydale Limited, Vorbrck Materials, XG Sciences.
Let’s zoom out for a second
Graphene is just one example of a new class of “super-materials” that we are discovering using exponential technologies like infinite computing, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.
These technologies will allow us to model new materials and material processes, and then actually bring them to market.
And the pace of innovation is accelerating rapidly.
For graphene alone, 3,018 graphene patent applications were granted by July 2011.
That number almost tripled to 8,413 by February 2013.
Carbon nanotubes and aerogels are similarly exciting.
Another (secret) company is actually producing perfect artificial diamonds for orders of magnitude cheaper than current diamond products.
Biomimetic nanomaterials are just coming online.
Stanene (two-dimensional tin sheets) may be the next super material that competes with graphene.
This is an incredibly exciting time for material science, and an incredible exciting time to be alive.
Also read: TOP 50 MOON SHOTS (2000 - 2020)
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