Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Graphene is the new black

Graphite may be diamond's ugly, slimy cousin, but it has been useful for a long time. Pencils, batteries, brake and crucible linings among other things. It's currently experiencing a considerable profile boost, though, as more and more potential applications are found for graphene. Graphene - single-atom-thick honeycomb-patterned sheets of graphite - was described in theory in 1947, and has been physically created since the 1970s, but it didn't really come into public consciousness until work done in 2004 by a Manchester University team including Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. This pair won a Nobel prize for their research and since then graphene has been big news.

So. Why the fuss? It's incredibly strong, for one thing. Imagine a sheet of atoms you can pick up. It's very thin, of course, but it's bendy, stretchy and stiff. Most importantly, perhaps, it is the best conductor of electricity ever found. And that means it's going to be astoundingly important, most likely. Most commercial uses are still in the early stages of development, but there will be a lot of them. Computer circuitry, flexible/foldable media screens, ambient heat batteries, transparent aircraft*, solar panels, hydrogen storage for car fuel, distilling alcohol, power-generating hull coatings... All sorts. 

As these ideas reach fruition and make it to the stage of practical application the demand for graphite will rise astronomically. Nearly 80% of the world's graphite is produced by China. Lucky them. I have some little chunks from Sri Lanka that have never really been a big seller. Maybe I should hold on to them for the moment.

*I know, right?

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