Graphene: the miracle material explained

A new substance that might just change the world

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We could be on the brink of a new industrial revolution, and it's all down to a single layer of carbon atoms called Graphene.

Graphene is the thinnest, strongest, lightest, stiffest material ever made, and if it lives up to its potential it could change pretty much everything.

Why graphene is exciting

Graphene can do almost anything bar making you a better dancer or more skilful in bed. Fancy a superconductor that works at room temperature? Graphene can do that. Want to make bendy OLED touchscreens, or print solar cells, or make something harder than diamond? Or make thin, light structures that are 200 times stronger than ones made from steel? Graphene's good for all that too.

Speaking to Nature magazine, graphene expert and Nobel laureate Andre Geim explained: "It's the thinnest possible material you can imagine. It also has the largest surface-to-weight ratio: with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches... it's also the strongest material ever measured; it's the stiffest material we know; it's the most stretchable crystal. That's not the full list of superlatives, but it's pretty impressive."

Conspiracy theorists believe that graphene is a material left on Earth by - or rather, stolen from - space aliens. The theory reckons it's no coincidence that the theory behind graphene was first published in 1947, just when the US was dismantling UFOs in Roswell.

There's a bit of a graphene gold rush

According to figures from Cambridge Intellectual Property, in 2012 there were an extraordinary 7,351 graphene patents and patent applications, with the majority - 2,200 - filed by Chinese institutions and corporations.

The US is next with 1,754 patents, but while the UK kicked off the whole frenzy by publishing the first significant research back in 2004, it's far behind in the patent stakes: it only filed 54. That might explain why chancellor George Osborne has actually decided to spend some money for once: the UK government is supporting graphene research to the tune of £60 million.

Here's an interesting nugget spotted by the Cambridge IP: the biggest single corporate patent holder is Samsung, with 407 patents to IBM's 134.

Uses for graphene are starting to snowball

Graphene will make some people very rich, and we're already seeing practical uses of the technology: University of Manchester researchers have developed a graphene transistor that could enable much faster computing, while other research is helping us understand the substance's electrical and magnetic behaviour.

Graphene is being used to make "extremely efficient" flexible OLEDs for displays, highly conductive nanomaterials for the electronics industry and exceptionally powerful tennis rackets, and some people want to use it to make lightning-powered skyscrapers or to replace carbon fibre in cars and other vehicles.

We're not finished yet. It's also being used to make better batteries, and some people reckon it might even stop the next Lance Armstrong from getting away with doping: researchers are working on a system that incorporates graphene "to detect a single molecule of a drug in a few minutes".

It could be great for the environment

Today's vehicles, even electric ones, still face the same old problem: cars, trucks and trains are heavy, and pushing something heavy around the place at high speed uses enormous amounts of energy. Cutting weight is a priority, and today's vehicles are increasingly using aluminium and carbon fibre to achieve that.

Graphene would make those vehicles' weight savings look insignificant, ushering in an era of super-light transport that uses considerably less energy to start, steer and stop.

It has other environmental uses too: scientists at Moscow State University and Rice University have found that graphene is very good at extracting radioactive materials from water. They believe that it could be used to clean up nuclear accidents, for more efficient mining of rare metals, or for oil extraction.

Graphene is coming sooner rather than later

Firms such as Samsung and Nokia are getting into graphene in a big way, with the first commercial products based on the material due in 2013 or 2014.

As Geim told Nature, when he was in South Korea he was "shown a graphene roadmap, compiled by Samsung. On this roadmap were approximately 50 dots, corresponding to particular applications. One of the closest applications with a reasonable market value was a flexible touchscreen. Samsung expects something within two to three years." That was three years ago.

Is graphene being overhyped?

Writing in The Guardian, Philip Ball urges caution. While so-called miracle materials "can still grab headlines and conjure up utopian visions", they don't always deliver.

"High-temperature superconductors, which nabbed a Nobel in 1987, would give us Maglev trains and loss-free power lines. Carbon nanotubes... would anchor a space elevator and transform microelectronics. These things haven't materialised", he points out.

Graphene is banging around your head to the tune of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene'

And if it wasn't, it probably is now. Sorry about that.