Graphene Could be the New Goldrush After Samsung’s Discovery

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Science Fact Friday champions today’s advancements that could turn yesterday’s Science Fiction into tomorrow’s science reality. Information presented here is for educational purposes only. We are not liable if your space elevator collapses.

Graphene. The name sounds fake. Well, wait until you hear what it can do.

In science, some folk throw around terms like disruptive technologies and disruptive innovations. Disruption as in what email did to postal mail, and what the mass producible Ford Model T did to the locomotive. These “disruptive” advancements are scary stuff for mailmen and train conductors, but for society as a whole they’re a tremendous boon.

Graphene could replace silicon. Supercapacitors made from it could replace a majority of battery types, including those used in electric cars. And it shares similar properties with carbon nanotubes, except it’s lighter, stronger, and easier to manufacture for inventive use in countless products.

Graphene may be the first truly disruptive material.

Earlier this month, news broke that Samsung researchers at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, in conjunction with Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, had pioneered a groundbreaking method of mass producing graphene.

And this is one of the rare times when “groundbreaking” is not hyperbole.

You may say, “Okay, good for Samsung.” But this is good news for everyone who could benefit from proliferation of graphene, which is… everyone. And, of course, Samsung does benefit. In fact, their research was partially spurred on by their desire to make flexible but durable displays.

However, that’s not where the graphene story ends or begins.

A little history

Graphene is a two-dimensional–yes, you read that right–crystalline allotrope (i.e. form) of carbon. It is incredibly conductive, some believe 100 percent efficient (which sounds like B.S. but awesome B.S. nonetheless), and 100 times stronger than steel. It’s also so light that one gram could cover an entire football field.

Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov were sitting around the University of Manchester. It was a Friday night, they’d been doing research into the conductive properties of graphite in the interests of inventing a better transistor (we’ve all been there, right?), when they noticed some sticky tape left by assistants. The assistants used the tape to clean the graphite samples.

Well, left on the tape were flecks of graphene. Seriously. It was that easy.

Geim and Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize. No, not just for that. They also discovered how to get that stuff onto a silicon chip and, you know, do science stuff.

Once everyone got hip to the discovery, the only hindrance to embracing the material was the lack of scalability that every manufacturing option offered.

Everyone jumped on board, though, and started going sticky tape crazy. For a while, after the initial wonder wore off, laymen standing on the sidelines feared that graphene might become just a thing that lab assistants made while they microwaved their hot pockets.

Wearable, Bendable, Foldable Tech

Back to the Future Part 2

Do you realize that those super dope, self-tying kicks that Marty wore in Back to the Future Part II were basically smart sneakers? Looks like Nike plans to release them in 2015 (not a joke), but the movie version is definitely a tiny computer in a shoe.

So are the self-drying clothes, except then it would be a tiny computer in a jacket or whatnot, but I digress. That’s basically what we mean when we say “wearable tech.” For a real life, modern equivalent, think Google Glass.

There’s a holdup to wearable tech being truly feasible. No one wants to buy a shirt for the cost of a Faberge egg, especially if it’s as fragile as one. But graphene, with its strength and conductivity, can help make smart clothes and wearable tech durable.

It can also make it foldable. Imagine being able to fold up your iPad so that it’s smaller than your iPhone, slip it into your pocket, then snap it out to its full size once you’re at work, so you have it as your work laptop/tablet/smart-paper.

It may be several years down the line, but Samsung has already stated its intent to use this innovation toward making flexible displays for televisions and mobile devices. What’s crazy is that this isn’t even all that prevalent a concept in science fiction, the most notable being Red Planet with Val Kilmer. So the roadmap is unclear.

Expect it to start curved, then we’ll go from there, hopefully progressing to completely foldable. Again, Samsung is invested in further developing its smart watches, which screams out for a graphene application of some sort.

The crazy thing is, that’s where this huge graphene boom might start. Where the concept could go from there is up to Silicon–soon to be Graphene–Valley.

Energy, Meet Graphene

Graphene Supercapacitor

Robots and phasers are going to take a lot of battery power, and that means better batteries.

We’re pretty used to turning funky materials into batteries: lithium, zinc, nickel, iron, aluminium, potato, you get the idea. So, it doesn’t take an enthusiast to imagine that they might try making a battery using graphene.

Well, they already have. And it can, in theory, power an electric car for 300 miles on a single charge.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, researchers have developed a lithium-sulphur battery, which uses a cathode made of sulphur-graphene oxide. They say it has twice the “specific energy” of lithium-ion batteries, which means its got double power pound-for-pound, essentially.

But that’s using graphene oxide, which is basically a poor man’s graphene. It’s derived from a process that attempts to get graphene by oxidizing graphite, and it ends up containing some oxygen and hydrogen. It’s understandable because manufacturing this is far easier to scale up than the scotch tape method.

Oh, but then again, Samsung changed that, didn’t they?

Let’s go ahead and assume graphene can be used later instead of graphene oxide. Cool. Regardless, sweet, sweet undiluted graphene can do a lot more as far as batteries are concerned. Come with me to the land of graphene supercapacitors.

You’ll find better breakdowns elsewhere of the differences between capacitors, batteries, and supercapacitors than I could ever provide.

To oversimplify, capacitors in general are great for quick charging and release of energy, but they don’t hold charges for too long. Batteries are far better at the long haul, as it were, but they can’t pump in and out the juice quite like a capacitor. And supercapacitors are the missing link. Graphene supercapacitors… well, you get the idea.

One extra major benefit of early tests of graphene supercapacitors is that they don’t degrade like traditional batteries, even after 10,000 cycles. And some folks at UCLA think they have a bead on developing one that could be used in cell phones. The time it takes to charge is just five seconds. No reports yet on if we’d still find a way to complain about battery life.

Eyes and Ears

Graphene also sounds great, apparently, without even really trying.

Graphene Earphones

The graphene speaker, with almost no specialized acoustic design, performs comparably to a high quality commercial headset. Moreover, the high-frequency performance of the EDGS (Figure 3a) is markedly better than that for the MX-400 thanks to the extremely low-mass diaphragm.

(Berkeley Labs)

The Sennheiser MX-400 retailed for about $20 when it was on the market. In essence, this white paper says that raw graphene is better than what Sennheiser could come up with after extensive honing and tuning. One reason is that graphene is so strong that it doesn’t need to be protected, or damped, like other materials.

On the flipside, graphene may help us see beyond the normal light spectrum.

Graphene can detect the full infrared spectrum at room temperature, but it absorbs a fraction of light because it’s only one atom thick. However, researchers at the University of Michigan say they’ve developed the first room temperature, high-sensitivity photodetector using graphene’s infrared abilities on everything from a camera to a contact lens.

Ocular Implant Graphene

Yes, they literally mean having infrared vision with a contact lens. If you just pictured Geordi La Forge’s ocular implants from Star Trek: First Contact and its sequels, I’m right with ya.

Computing, of course

We talked a little bit about nano computing last week with carbon nanotubes. You know, the usual paranoid ranting about processors capable of sustaining vast artificial intelligence.

Well, folks at IBM created “a graphene-based circuit 10,000 times more powerful than existing alternatives,” according to

But it doesn’t even have to be an entire circuit for the numbers to impress. The fastest graphene transistor, a single transistor, created in a lab was clocked at 427 GHz.

To give you a sense of perspective, computers today are into the billions in terms of transistors.

Okay, so let’s say we get a big ol’ CPU made of graphene and, I don’t know… build The Matrix or something. Or Tad Williams’ Otherland. Or William Gibson’s Neuromancer cyberspace. Or Tron‘s The Grid. Or .hack… But don’t we want it to work over wi-fi? Going back to wires would feel so passe at this point. *sips mai tai*

Derezz Tron Graphene

Georgia Tech is on it. How does 100 terabits per second sound? For reference: a typical Blu-ray movie is about 20 GBs. Yowza.

To make an antenna, the group says, graphene could be shaped into narrow strips of between 10 and 100 nanometers wide and one micrometer long, allowing it to transmit and receive at the terahertz frequency, which roughly corresponds to those size scales. Electromagnetic waves in the terahertz frequency would then interact with plasmonic waves—oscillations of electrons at the surface of the graphene strip—to send and receive information.

(MIT Technology Review)

Yeah, what he said.

The infrastructure to take advantage of this might be a ways off, but don’t dismiss the possibility for rapid advancement, because buckets of money is good motivation.

Water, Water Everywhere

Okay, so we’ve talked about some cool stuff that graphene can be used for, but this might be the coolest.

Graphene and graphene oxide can be used to remove radioactive waste from water as well as desalinate salt water.

Turns out it’s not even that tough (NOTE: gross oversimplification). Seems like you just add graphene oxide to radiated water, and the graphene oxide clumps around the radionuclides. If we had this process down to a science, it would sure make the Fallout games less interesting, but it’d be great for places like Fukushima.

Graphene can also take the salt right out of salt water, through filtration. Read the exciting white paper from researchers at MIT for details.


Chillin’. Havin’ a Coke.

First, let me say that this ruins Waterworld for me. Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper’s masterpiece can no longer grace my household’s entertainment center, because it’s only now–after nearly two decades–been proven implausible. We could just drink the stuff, for crying out loud. What was the big deal?

In Conclusion

Graphene is a wonder material. And, if Samsung isn’t blowing too much hot air, it might soon be mass produced.

But graphene might actually be the start of something larger. Two-dimensional tin is now being pursued, called “Stanene.” And obviously, now that the cat is out of the bag, scientists will be going back to try and figure out what else they may have missed. And super materials formed from familiar materials are especially in vogue now, so much so that researchers are beginning to take a second look at silk.

Graphene may simply be one piece of a complicated new world created, in a way, by the 21st century’s push toward nanotechnology. A world that looks even stranger on the microscopic level than it does on the macro.

Well, enough with the seriousness. Watch this video of a dude making a very DIY graphene supercapacitor in his garage (or somewhere that looks just like a garage), and let us know in the comment section what you think of the possibilities of this two-dimensional wonder.

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