I'd imagine that most of you haven't heard of graphene before, if you aren't into the sciences. I first heard about it a couple years ago, when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their graphene research. It didn't really come up on my radar again until about seven or eight months ago, although I've been very, very curious about it since then. In the past few weeks, a few articles have hit quasi-mainstream news sites, and a video about graphene went viral a week or so ago, so I figured I'd do a quick write-up.
I think graphene is going to completely change our lives in the future, although it may be five or six years before it starts to have widespread commercial and culturally impacts. But trust me, this is something that you ARE going to hear a lot about within a few years.
Before I continue about graphene, you may think you've heard of it before. Graphite is something that we've all used for years. Graphite (the main component of the "lead" in a pencil), is a crumbly substance that resembles a layer cake of weakly bonded graphene sheets.
In simple terms, to take a line or two directly from wikipedia, "Graphene is a substance composed of pure carbon, with atoms arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern similar to graphite, but in a one-atom thick sheet. It is very light, with a 1-square-meter sheet weighing only 0.77 milligrams. It is an allotrope of carbon whose structure is a single planar sheet of sp2-bonded carbon atoms, that are densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice. Graphene is most easily visualized as an atomic-scale chicken wire made of carbon atoms and their bonds. The crystalline or 'flake' form of graphite consists of many graphene sheets stacked together. Graphene is the basic structural element of some carbon allotropes including graphite, charcoal, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. It can also be considered as an indefinitely large aromatic molecule, the limiting case of the family of flat polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons."
Perhaps that description went over a few heads, especially after the first sentence. Ok, let's make it more simple. Watch this year-old video:
If you really want to get into a deeper understanding of the physical and chemical properties of graphene, click here to read the full, detailed wikipedia article as a starting point. But you don't need to do that. Let's look at it more from a layperson's point-of-view:
Graphene is also flexible, so look at these two graphics to help you envision what I mean. The first is a single-layer graphene conceptualized, and then second makes you think about flexibility.
Back in 2003, I first heard about Peak Oil, and that ended up encouraging me to start learning more about fossil fuels and energy. Energy use and consumption, in all of the possible different forms, is basically the single most important issue affecting the human species in the future. Since 2003, I've quite literally spent more hours researching energy issues than I spent getting my first undergrad degree at Mount Allison. It's been time well spent, because energy consumption and sources are "big picture" items that affect us far, far more than 99.9% of the population could ever hope to understand.
If you pay any attention to energy supply issues yourself, you'll understand that two of the holy grail issues are the fact that a theoretical hydrogen-based economy is highly problematic because hydrogen is a carrier, not a source, and that we as a society have not been able to make great batteries for a variety of reasons.
Let me just show you another video, to give you a better understanding of how exciting this stuff will turn out to be:
Those of you who understand physics and chemistry probably now realize why graphene can probably change our future completely. Imagine having highly effective and flexible batteries that can be charged almost as quickly as you can feed energy into them, and which you can just throw into a compost heap for recycling. Imagine being able to give your smartphone a full day's charge in one or two seconds. Imagine being able to charge an electric car in under a minute, instead of a few hours (which means that a traditional style "gas" station format would be possible, rather than "park & charge" areas). And of course, that's just a start. There isn't that much more that I need to say about it. If you've followed this far, you'll understand the potential, and you'll be able to do more digging yourself. I'll just leave you with a couple of recent articles to get you started:
Edit, March 19th: Here's a good article about the potential use of graphene in water desalinization:
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