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What Is Graphene?

Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk

Graphene is a term for a special structure or allotrope of carbon atoms where they self-assemble themselves into double-bonded six carbon atom rings in two dimensional sheets. At an atomic scale, graphene resembles the structure of chicken wire, or that of a chain link fence, and is a repeating two-dimensional structure that, when folded into cylinders, is known as a carbon nanotube, or, when shaped into a sphere, is often referred to as a buckyball or fullerene. One of the most common areas where graphene sheets exist naturally and are produced in small amounts are in what are commonly mislabeled as lead pencils, which rub off sheets of the carbon lattice from the pencil point when it is abraded against paper, leaving familiar pencil marks.

Both graphitic materials and research into graphene technology is considered so important in the 21st century that it won two UK-based researchers at the University of Manchester the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Andre Geim, a Dutch-Russian physicist, and Konstantin Novoselov, a Russo-British physicist, discovered a practical method of producing single atomic layers of graphene. Applications for atomic layers of graphene span the spectrum from very dense forms of data storage in computers to ultracapacitators to store electrical energy, and flexible solar cells that could replace difficult to work with silicon. The unique two-dimensional shape of graphene sheets also makes them useful in particle physics research at nuclear accelerator facilities, where they can have a resting mass of zero, allowing them to exhibit traits of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle when bombarded by relativistic electron streams.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The many potential commercial applications for graphene has led to a steady increase in published papers by the scientific community. As of 2011, over 25,000 research papers and patents have been filed for graphene applications, with the yearly average jumping from 157 in 2004 to over 2,500 papers in 2010. Developments in graphene photonics and optoelectronics devices is one of the most promising fields being researched. This is because the material could improve the efficiency of light emitting diode (LED) panels used in everything from computer and television screens to light sensors. Graphene would make such displays flexible and more durable, and replace the need for using rare and sometimes toxic metals in their manufacture, such as platinum and indium.

One of the main properties of graphene that would make it useful as a flexible touchscreen for an automated teller machine (ATM) or solar cell is that it can be both transparent for the passage of light and an efficient electrical conductor at the same time. It wasn't until the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded in 2010, however, that an easy way of manufacturing large amounts of single atomic layers of the material was possible. Since the publication of the manufacturing methodology by the University of Manchester researchers, South Korean scientists have found a way to scale up the process to produce sheets of the material that can be used for standard-sized computer and television display screens.

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