Graphene, the key to nanotechnology in a pencil stroke?

by Geert Lebens, 22 February 2015

Graphene is a material that consists of purified carbon atoms. It has always been right under our eyes, every day, in a single pencil stroke. It is no secret anymore that this atom has a special meaning to humanity, it is to be found at the very base of our existence. Our DNA even contains carbon al the way to the air we breath out of our bodies. It could be even the thinnest and strongest material we know today and it can carry a thousand times more electricity than copper.

Since the beginning of the 21st century graphene’s potentials seem endles. Scientists are ever since yearning for new explorations, resulting in a lot of speculations. The growing interest in this material came from physics professor Andre Geim and his Ph.D. student Konstantin Novoselov, who discovered how to create a film of a singel layer of carbon atoms arranged in a series of hexagons linked in a honeycomb pattern. This 2-dimensional structured material appeared to be a superconductor for electrons. They even demonstrated that graphene had a pronounced “field effect” which makes it usable as a replacement for silicon, used in computer chips. Although to build transmitters it requires the ability to switch the material on and off to create 0/1 codes computers use to extract information. This still seems to be impossible to achieve with graphene based technology.

Though scientists have not their believes in the possibilities to use graphene in devices for information technology. Institutes and Universities across the world put a lot of research into exploring techniques to create efficient films and applications for it. But where most institutes and companies have a pure scientific view on the material’s potentials, Spanish scientist Tomas Palacios is totally open for speculations. He started the Center for graphene Devices and 2D Systems at M.I.T. He does not aim for improving existing applications with the appliance of graphene technology but rather tries building and designing devices for the future world. He has goals as cheaply collecting and transmitting information using every day objects, experimenting with 3D printing liquids consisting of graphene oxide with oxygen and hydrogen molecules. Palacios most ambitious goal is “graphene origami”, minuscule graphene based sheets that are folded to mimic organelles inside biological cells. It is a similar structure to original one-dimensional DNA structures that are folded many times to make chromosomes. The reason for this is to pack huge amounts of computing power into a living cell, the kind of nanotechnology that will bring us even closer to a cyborg future.

Graphene has not proven itself enough yet to make this happen. Nevertheless research for graphene has already brought us a long list of inventions like these done by professor James M. Tour’s lab at Rice University. They found a way to integrate the material in the manufacturing of inflatable slides and rafts for aircrafts and they even found a way to clean up nuclear waste with a graphene powder. Could this material be the most important invention to become widely applicable in our future lives?

The New Yorker published an online article about these developments telling us a lot about the short history of developments of graphene technology, and the material’s potentials.

Source: The New Yorker, Annals of Innovation, december 22, 2014

Illustration by Chad Hagen

Read the full article here