Quirks and Quarks

From dresses to space travel, graphene could do just about anything

Scientists are giddy about the possibilities for graphene, but will the substance live up to the hype?
Model Bethan Sowerby wears a dress made using graphene during a media event at the Intu Trafford centre shopping complex in Manchester, Britain, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Phil Noble (REUTERS)

The material

Graphene has been called everything from a "wonder material," to a "miracle substance," to "the future of engineering and technology." Made completely out of carbon, graphene is a two-dimensional sheet that's one atom thick and invisible to the eye — yet it's stronger than steel, and can conduct electricity with very little resistance. 

Since graphene was discovered in 2004, hundreds of thousands of papers have been published on the topic, billions of dollars have been invested in it, and there was even a Nobel Prize in Physics given out for its discovery. 

Les Johnson is a physicist from NASA's Space Marshall Flight Center and the co-author of a new book called Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World. His writing delves into the discovery of graphene, its potential, and what stands in the way from it truly living up to the hype.

"When we think about molecules — when you built them as a kid or in a science class — you take the little rubber balls, and have the bonds that are represented by little sticks or toothpicks, and you put them together and they're all kind of three-dimensional. That's not graphene," he says. "Graphene is totally in one plane. So all of the carbon atoms lie in a row."

Senior technologist Dariusz Czolak holds a piece of silicon carbide disk covered with a layer of graphene, obtained in the process of epitaxy, in the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME) laboratory in Warsaw October 23, 2012. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND) (REUTERS)

Potential applications

Some of the potential long-term uses sound too good to be true: harvesting energy from air, cleaning radioactive seawater, or even sailing to another star. In the short term, Johnson says we'll most likely see applications to strengthen and improve electronics, sports equipment, or even construction materials. 

"I think it's interesting if you follow the money and you look at what countries, and what companies are investing in graphene," says Johnson. "You find that a lot of Chinese companies, electronics companies in particular, and in South Korea it seems Samsung is a big investor in this technology. I would venture to say a large fraction of your listeners have had the experience of cracking the screens on their cellphone. Well graphene is transparent, a single sheet one atom layer thick, strong enough to withstand a footprint of an elephant. How many of our phones can have an elephant stand on them and not break? So I think that you know, and it's also conductive which is what you need for your screen on a cellphone. So I would say one of the nearer-term applications is we're going to see indestructible cellphone screens."

Worth the hype? 

"Even if 10 or 15 per cent of all the ideas come to fruition, it's going to impact our lives in a big way," says Johnson. "I think graphene will live up to some of the hype in the near term and maybe most of it in the far term. And I think the applications that use electrical properties on a small scale will be first. And I think the applications that require large quantities of it — big sheets like for cellphone covers or windows — that'll take a little bit longer. But I think we'll see stuff start popping up in consumer products now. You can already go to stores and see them and we'll see more and more as time goes on."