Graphene: The marvel material

This material has the potential to become as globally important as oil. As the World Congress and Expo on Nanotechnology Materials and Science draws to a close, meet graphene, science’s new star

Imagine a material 200 times stronger than steel, but incredibly flexible and one million times thinner than a human hair. 

A material that could charge a phone or a car in minutes, and power an aeroplane, and even treat cancer.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But graphene – pioneered by University of Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2004, a discovery that won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 – is very much a reality. 

“Historians in the future may call this the graphene century in much the same way that the 20th century was the oil century,” says renowned futurologist James Bellini. “It will have such a remarkable impact on all the things we do. It’s a dream material.” 

Bellini discussed graphene’s amazing capabilities in a 2013 article for Dubai’s Expo 2020 bid. But top scientists and inventors have been talking up the material’s potential for more than a decade now, trying to turn these possibilities into commercial realities ever since Geim and Novoselov first isolated the hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms that makes up graphene. 

“One of the things futurologists regularly get wrong is the timings,” jokes Bellini. “Actually, I usually work to the 50-year rule – it takes that long for inventions to become worldwide reality. It took half a century for steam engines to power a train and for the discovery of DNA to end in genetic mapping. Graphene will take time to change the whole landscape of industry, but we’re accelerating towards that reality.” 

Historians in the future may call this the graphene century in much the same way that the 20th century was the oil century

James Bellini, Futurologist

And 2016 does seem to be the year that mass-market applications for graphene will begin to filter through. Starting, appropriately enough, with a lightbulb moment. Last year, scientists at the newly opened National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester used the material’s ultra-conductive properties to coat the lament of a dimmable LED lightbulb. The result is a product that lasts longer, uses less energy, costs less to manufacture and is much cooler. 

“You should have seen people’s faces at the demonstration,” says the National Graphene Institute’s Business Director, James Baker. “There was a lightbulb which had been on continuously for four hours. I walked up to it, picked it up in my bare hands, and passed it around. The company we’re working with to produce this bulb is basically able to completely re-engineer what lighting might be in the future.” 

For now, it’s graphene-enhanced products that are coming to market rather than pure graphene, not least because producing large amounts is cost-prohibitive. Sports equipment company Head place a small amount of graphene in its tennis rackets to make them both stronger and lighter. It is also being added to inks and paints, its conductivity used to print circuits, electronic components and radio antenna on to any surface – your T-shirt could be wearable technology. 

graphene tennis racket
Graphene’s lightness and strength has a variety of applications, from artificial limbs to tennis rackets

Such experiments and innovations are happening in labs across the world. The University of Manchester is embroiled in a race to develop mass-market applications for the material, and South Korea and China are investing millions of dollars into its applications. Because graphene is a naturally occurring substance (Geim and Novoselov discovered it when they removed graphite with sticky tape), patenting it is impossible, but one can patent how it is made, mixed or applied.

The next step is to get the Nobel Prize-winning science to market via industrial collaborations and partnerships. The NGI has a second building under construction that will have the explicit aim of scaling up prototypes and commercialising products. The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – Baker chuckles as he shortens it to ‘Geic’ – is being built with a £30m (Dh158m) grant from Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy company owned by UAE investment and development agency Mubadala.

“We’re really keen that the relationship with the UAE is more than just a physical building,” explains Baker. “We’re going to kick off a research programme with the Masdar Institute, which will mature into development projects in the UAE from 2018, and we’ll be encouraging industrial partners to join in this collaboration too.” 

They’d be foolish not to. A lot of James Bellini’s work about “the future” involves discussing scenario planning with major companies, encouraging them to think about the impact on their industries of new technologies. 

“The art of futuristic thinking is not about answers,” he says. “It’s about questions, what-ifs. And in graphene’s case, it would be talking to the aerospace market, for example, about how they would feel if a competitor came up with an aircraft that is a fifth of the weight, powered by batteries that could run 5,000 miles. That’s the very real territory graphene will be in.” 

graphene light bulbs
Lightbulbs with graphene-coated laments use less energy

Bellini says that scenario is at least 20 years away, and Baker laughs at any suggestion that such a graphene aeroplane is imminent. But late last year, the NGI tested a drone coated with graphene to investigate how the substance might decrease drag and manage temperature – crucial for de-icing. Much anticipation also circles around the possibilities for graphene as a super-battery or super-capacitor. 

After all, battery technology is the major conundrum of our age. In our ‘always-on’ lives, our phones, tablets and laptops are useless if they’re not charged. Meanwhile, Toyota, BMW and 

Nissan have all proved there is demand for battery-powered cars. But their low range means they’re mostly still hybrids, and still reliant on petroleum. 

“If we can get the graphene mature and acting as a super-capacitor, then, yes, it will be a step change,” admits Baker. “We already have a simple demo, which can take an iPhone from zero power to minutes of charge in about 20 seconds. And we have a student developing a graphene fuel cell – it’s a single layer of graphene, which, if you add methanol or a waste material to it, will power a battery. We’ve already got it lighting an LED, but this year he hopes to run a test in which he sends up two micro-drones, one powered by his graphene fuel cell, and one with batteries. The intention is that his lasts 10 times longer.” 

While the addition of graphene to a battery might make your iPhone last longer, it’s trifling compared with the material’s potential in the healthcare market. It seems almost fanciful that a layer of graphene one atom thick can somehow have a profound impact upon the struggle to cure cancer, but Baker is confident that the early research the NGI is doing could – regulations and testing not with-standing – change the way we treat the disease. 

graphene battery pack
'If we can get the graphene mature and acting as a super-capacitor, then, yes, it will be a step change', says National Graphene Institute’s Business Director, James Baker

“Because we are based at a university, we have the physicists, chemists and biomedics already here. We can bring together researchers, clinicians, doctors and businesses at the NGI. And what we’re finding is that graphene is both selective and sensitive. So you could ‘tune’ a graphene cell to go into the body, find a tumour and attach itself, thereby making the tumour non-cancerous.”

Elsewhere at the NGI, a team of 25 academics are looking at graphene’s potential in the areas of artificial skin, limbs and organs, and as an alternative to the bandage, given it is incredibly strong and very light. 

Is there, in fact, anything graphene can’t do? “Name a product, and graphene is a potential solution to that market,” smiles Baker. “And that is its greatest strength, and our greatest challenge.” 

“I don’t think people fully appreciate that it will change the way we live,” adds Bellini. “In all honesty, materials aren’t particularly sexy. But graphene will be one of those disruptive technologies that we will look back on as key to a wider revolution.”