In 2010, Sir Andre Geim and Kostya Novosolev won the Nobel Prize in Physics for successfully isolating graphene – a material set to transform our world as we know it. The 2D crystal graphene has taken the science world by storm. It would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through a single sheet of graphene as thin as cling film. It is 300 times stronger than steel and harder than diamond. Not only is it the strongest material known to science at the present time but it’s also the lightest. And there’s more: it’s flexible, almost transparent, superconductive (electricity flows through graphene much faster than copper or any other material) and allows nothing to pass through except for water. All this and it’s only one atom thick.
While practical applications of graphene remain a pipe dream at present, its potential cannot be overstated. We could soon be seeing wafer-thin televisions, equally slender mobile phones and touchscreens that are bendable, allowing you to roll them up and take out with you. There is the possibility of longer-lasting standard batteries which, for example, could revolutionise the future of electric cars, making them more efficient and affordable to run. Scientists have already shown that graphene can be used as a transparent, thin and long-lasting anti-corrosion coating on metals. It has the potential to be filter out the salt in seawater, making oceans a source of drinkable water.
The most exciting prospect, however, is its potential to replace silicon in computer chips. Smaller and more compact chips can be produced and will provide for faster and higher-performing computers. Professor Geim firmly believes that graphene is going to be a disruptive technology. Early predictions back up his view, estimating that by 2022 the graphene industry will be worth £300bn. In March 2015, George Osborne opened the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester, where Geim and Novosolev did their work on the material.
Editor’s update 4 February 2016:
A team of researchers at Graphene Flagship has demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene with neuron cells whilst maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. By interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can measure the brain’s electrical impulses to recover sensory functions. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputees or paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects – and motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled. Graphene’s excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems.
Marcus Webb is editor of Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine which looks back to give the final analysis on stories after the dust has settled, priding itself on being 'Last to Breaking News'.
Sir Andre Geim and Kostya Novosolev, University of Manchester