You will have heard countless news about graphene, a material that has been a trend for being found in various types of masks and of which its dangerousness was warned. But what is graphene?
What is Graphene and What is It For?
Where does it come from? How is it used? Is it dangerous for human health?
We analyze, in detail, what graphene is, what it is for and what its massive use will mean in future technology.
Graphene is a laminar material composed of carbon atoms that are obtained from graphite, one of the most abundant elements in nature. Yes, yes, the one used to make pencil leads. Its great advantage is that it is an extremely resistant material.
Among its main characteristics, graphene is hard, flexible, resistant, capable of storing energy and being a good conductor of heat and electricity. It is thanks to these properties that it has multiple applications in the fields of electronics, computing, construction, and medicine, among others.
Its structure and chemical bond were discovered during the 1930s. However, scientists abandoned their research because they considered it a thermodynamically unstable material.
In 2010, physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosiolov received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking discoveries about this material and how it is applied in the field of technology (R&D).
To give us an idea, one millimeter of graphite contains more than three million layers of graphene. Its structure is similar to a honeycomb, that is, hexagonal in shape.
Next, we list its different properties:
- 1. It is an extremely hard and resistant material. A sheet of graphene is up to 200 times stronger than a hypothetical sheet of steel (and even diamond).
- 2. It is a very flexible, elastic and moldable material.
- 3. Graphene is quite stable when subjected to high pressure.
- 4. It allows a high thermal and electrical conductivity.
- 5. It generates electricity when hit by sunlight.
What is graphene used for?
Graphene is sold in sheets, which are used for a myriad of technologies, products and infrastructures.
Chips and transistors can be created through graphene. In addition, being a highly flexible material, it can be used to create electrical circuits that adapt to any surface.
Its application in the manufacture of flexible and transparent touch screens is also being investigated. These electronic screens would be made up of a luminous layer of OLED technology and, on the other, a sheet of graphene that would have two functions: protect the screen and respond to tactile indications.
Work is underway to create processors so that computers are much more efficient, faster, and consume little energy. Currently, processors lose energy in the form of heat, so graphene is a material with great potential to improve the performance of computers.
The material that is mainly used in the manufacture of computers is silicon, although graphene could take its place in the coming years. In fact, a processor made with graphene could be up to 25 times more powerful than a current processor.
However, this may not happen for another two or three decades. Its discoverer, Andre Geim, explains it in an interview for the newspaper El Independiente: «It is inevitable that it will be used to produce faster chips: at some point some of these materials will be, if not a substitute, then a complement to silicon. In Spain, they are already introducing graphene into circuits combined with silicon, for example» .
The battery sector is the one with the least scientific and technological progress. Introducing graphene in this sector would mean a true revolution, since more efficient batteries (high charging speed), small and with a storage capacity much higher than the current one would be created.
Companies like Elon Musk‘s Tesla are already implementing graphene in the creation of their batteries.
In the field of pure and clean energy, solar panels stand out, a state-of-the-art technology that is capable of converting the sun’s energy into useful energy for human life.
However, could graphene unseat photovoltaic solar panels? It is very possible that it will become a fundamental material to save energy at home.
Graphene, after all, is lighter and has a high capacity to absorb the sun’s energy and transform it into useful energy with a much lower weight.
In the medicine and biotechnology sector
Research is being done on how graphene can be useful to treat diseases such as cancer and how to apply it to manufacture implants that replace damaged tissue. And this is mainly because it is a good conductor of electricity.
In the armor industry
A graphene sheet is thin, hard and resistant, so it could be used to make bulletproof vests, bulletproof clothing, anti-mosquito sprays, among others. These elements are not yet being manufactured due to the current high cost of graphene on the market.
In the food industry
In this field, graphene stands out as the main material for creating food containers thanks to the fact that it is capable of isolating food in a better way, that is, preventing bacteria from proliferating.
In science in general
In addition to all its applications in each sector, graphene is capable of reacting with other elements and obtaining new materials such as graphane ( it is a variety of graphene), nanotubes (it is a sheet of graphene that is molded in a cylindrical shape) and nanobuds. (branches of graphene).
More interesting is the following data; Researchers at the University of Manchester discovered that graphene can repair itself. This is due to its composition of carbon and hydrogen atoms, both of which are present in the air. If it were to suffer a small break, the graphene would search by itself for the atoms it needs to recompose itself.
For all its properties and advantages, graphene is, without a doubt, a material that will have great advances in a couple of decades. However, what challenges are you currently facing?
“Now it is produced in huge quantities but with poor quality. It is widely used, but for high-tech applications, it is still insufficient. Give it time to find applications, make it cheaper, of better quality… give it time. The same thing happened with silicon”, indicated its discoverer, the physicist André Greim, regarding what was the greatest challenge facing graphene today.
Being a relatively new material and on which research is still being carried out, it is still not known with certainty what dangers graphene can have.
For example, in early 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Health Canada said it identified inhaled graphene particles as having “some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals.”
With this statement, he justified the massive withdrawal of masks for daily use that contained this material due to the possibility of causing the inhalation of micro particles (which could cause lung toxicity in humans).