The ‘miracle material’ that is Graphene

Sir Andre Konstanin Geim, a Russian physicist, first came to media attention when
he was part of a team that levitated live frogs in mid-air with magnetic fields, an
experiment that got him an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 – a parody of the Nobel Prizes. A
decade later, along with Sir Konstantin Sergeevich Novoselov, they garnered the real
thing for their pioneering research on Graphene, despite early scepticism amongst the
scientific community on its potential.

Since their ascendancy to the pinnacle of scientific research, the excitement
surrounding Graphene has propagated through the scientific and non-scientific
community alike. The question that many present today is: why? In order to
appreciate the importance of one of the greatest scientific findings in history, we must
take into account its properties, structure and its current and potential applications.

Graphene is a form of Carbon that exists as a planar sheet of Carbon atoms; one atom
thick. The atoms are arranged in a two-dimensional crystal lattice – terms Tiffin boys
are especially familiar with – and it is known to be the thinnest and yet strongest
material known to science. You have probably begun to appreciate its calibre – if
not before you reached this paragraph – but this is just the beginning. Speaking of
beginnings, Geim and Novoselov first showed in 2004 that the single layers of this
Graphene could be isolated through their renowned sticky tape ‘trick’. They simply
placed sticky tape on Graphite, another form of Carbon, ripping off thin flakes of
the Graphite. Subsequently you, as Geim says, “fold the tape in half and stick it to
the flakes on top and split them again. And you repeat this procedure 10 or 20 times.
Each time, the flakes split into thinner and thinner flakes”. It was this groundbreaking
experiment – dubbed ‘mechanical exfoliation’ – that paved the way for the material to
reach its full, staggering potential.

Within 6 years, Graphene was shown to have some remarkable uses, however
irrelevant it may seem. In 2008, for example, it was used to create a microscopic
pressurised ‘balloon’ – the world’s smallest balloon – that is impermeable to gas. It
was later concluded that the setup could be used as a tiny weighing device. More
recently, it was announced that levitating Graphene is the fastest spinning object ever,
rotating 60 million times per minute, boasting an opportunity to further manipulate its
applications. Larger sheets of Graphene have also been made into touchscreen and it
has been suggested as a component of solar cells. Encompassing environmental and
practical functions and being relatively cheap to manufacture, it is clearly the material
of the future.

However, the most important feature of Graphene is its exotic and revolutionary
electrical properties. As it allows electrons to pass through it so freely, it promises
faster and better electronics in what has been called the ‘Graphene computing
revolution’. It will, scientists say, replace Silicon as transistors for its astonishing
electrical conductivity and a recent Graphene transistor created by IBM is rated at
150 GHz, a speed which easily surpasses the fastest Silicon transistor at 40 GHz. Bear
in mind that the former is less than 10 nanometers wide and 0.1nm thick. But the
ease of electron flow also causes problems because in order to perform calculations,
computers need to be able to turn the flow of current on and off in their circuits
via transistors. Graphene-based transistors are a problem because they are superb
conductors and this issue is currently being tackled through the use of ‘quantum
tunnels’.

On the other hand, key figures involved with Graphene such as Peter Antoinette, CEO
of Nanocomp, urge patience: “Graphene will have its place, but it will just take longer
than people think.” This view is supported by Geim himself: “it is a dream…The
prospect is so far beyond the horizon that we cannot even assess it properly”.

But it is a prospect worth thinking about as, after all, we are living in a period where
21st century research has reached its summit, for now, and Graphene is but one of
recent findings that will revolutionise modern technology in the future, a ‘miracle
material’ that could change the course of modern science forever.

Contributed by Blend Ashtey

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