5 Mind-Blowing Ways Supermaterial Graphene May Soon Change Your World

Graphene: the atomic structure of graphene -- a honeycomb arrangement of carbon atoms. Image by AlexanderAlUS.Graphene: the atomic structure of graphene -- a honeycomb arrangement of carbon atoms. Image by AlexanderAlUS.

It has been over a decade now since the first reported measurements on the new material “graphene”. Consisting of just a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene is one of the strongest, thinnest and most flexible materials and its remarkable electronic, thermal and structural properties led to its immediate hailing as a ‘supermaterial’. The discoverers of graphene, Andre Gaim and Konstantin Novoselov were even awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. However, despite all its promise, we’ve yet to see any technological revolutions stemming from this two dimensional material.

Ask those of us engaged in graphene research why this is the case and we tend to all give some version of the same response: “Graphene is going to be remarkably useful for something – we just haven't decided on what.” With that in mind, here are five possible ways that the various superior properties of graphene may soon change our world for the better:

1. Electronics Will Be Flexible And Transparant

Flexible display: graphene could make rollable screens like this a reality in the near future. Image by RDECOM.Flexible display: graphene could make rollable screens like this a reality in the near future. Image by RDECOM.

What do you think of the idea of a crystal clear cell phone or a flexible TV screen? Graphene is among the materials leading the charge toward realizing these devices.

Anyone who has been observing the evolution of the cell phone for the past ten years will have noted a significant shift in consumer demands. While early advancements were all about making cell phones as small as possible, newer iterations are again increasing in size to take advantage of touch screen functionality. Achieving a balance between screen size and ease of portability is a major design consideration. But imagine a cellphone with a screen as large as a laptop that can be rolled or folded to fit easily in your pocket. This is the promise of graphene as an electrode material.

Not only is graphene remarkably flexible, but thanks to its diminutive thickness, it’s also transparent. This makes it an excellent choice for Minority Report-style transparent computer screens, smart windows, or less unwieldy computer-enabled glasses. Indeed, just this year, researchers in the UK have produced flexible and transparent graphene-based LEDs screens just 10 – 40 nm thick making this development a large step closer to reality.

2. Holograms Will Not Just Be Sci Fi

Graphene hologram: though only 1 cm now, this graphene-derived holographic image is a forebearer of an imaging revolution to come. Reproduced from Li et al. Nature Comm. 6, 6984, 2015.Graphene hologram: though only 1 cm now, this graphene-derived holographic image is a forebearer of an imaging revolution to come. Reproduced from Li et al. Nature Comm. 6, 6984, 2015.

Holograms have long been a staple in science fiction – recall the famous “help me Obi-Wan Kenobi” scene from star wars – as the obvious step forward from 2D to 3D as our electronic display screens continue to advance. However, this transition from an array of pixels on a flat panel to a three dimensional image that can be viewed from any angle is one of considerable difficulty.

Research published last week in Nature Communications has shown that graphene may be just the material needed to bring this futuristic idea to the present. The science behind the generation of a holographic image is quite complex. The key discovery in this case was that a very short laser pulse can be used to reduce pieces of graphene to dimensions smaller than the wavelength of light. This allows for a much larger bending angle of light and therefore a wider viewing angle of the holographic image. The authors of the study demonstrated a 1 cm-sized holographic image, but contend that larger holograms will quickly follow. Couple this development with the first, and the idea of a flexible graphene smart watch that provides 3D image viewing is a not-at-all unrealistic development.

3. Condoms Will Feel Like Nothing At All

Graphene condoms: image from the University of Manchester, www.manchester.ac.uk.Graphene condoms: image from the University of Manchester, www.manchester.ac.uk.

Ever wish condoms felt like nothing at all?

I already mentioned in my introduction that graphene is among the thinnest, lightest and strongest materials known – many times stronger than steel – so it should come as no surprise that someone is working on its incorporation into condoms. Researchers at the University of Manchester were awarded $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013 to produce a “Next Generation Condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use." The team plans to develop a brand new nanomaterial incorporating latex and graphene to meet this challenge. The successful fabrication of such a prophylactic, aside from the obvious advantages, could be a major public health boon due to increased condom use lessening the spread of disease. Following the development of a prototype, future research will look at additional features like graphene’s antimicrobial properties.

4. Making Alcohol May Become Super Easy

Typical laboratory distillation set-up: using graphene membranes could much more simply remove water from solutions like alcohol. Image by Guruleninn.Typical laboratory distillation set-up: using graphene membranes could much more simply remove water from solutions like alcohol. Image by Guruleninn.

Not only can graphene improve our tech and sex life, it can also be used to distill booze! A report in 2012 noted this particularly useful feature of graphene-based membranes. While the membranes are impermeable to all number of liquids and gases, water passes through them easily. I have already discussed the application of similar membranes in water desalination, but the ability of graphene to remove water from other solutions is also of great interest. From a scientific standpoint, this is intriguing as graphene is impermeable to a number of molecules even smaller than water.

The explanation is that graphene sheets arrange in such a way that there is room between them for exactly one layer of water molecules. The water molecules order themselves into extremely thin sheets of ice which can slide along the graphene surface with practically no friction. While this technology can be used to remove the water from any number of solutions, the researchers decided to test it out with a bottle of vodka "for fun" and they found unsurprisingly that it grew increasingly alcoholic over time.

5. Cancer Drugs Will Be Delivered By "Flying Carpet"

 The Flying Carpet, oil painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.The Flying Carpet, oil painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

In January of this year, researchers at North Carolina State University used graphene sheets as nanoscale “flying carpets” to ferry drugs to cancerous cells. The two drugs in the study, TRAIL and doxorubicin, require delivery to separate parts of the cell for maximum effect with the former operating on the cell’s external membrane and the latter requiring access to the nucleus. By using graphene as the drug delivery agent, the researchers could bind the TRAIL and doxorubicin to the ‘carpet’ by different strategies allowing for sequential delivery of the treatment. Studies on mice indeed showed that the graphene-bound drugs were more effective than either drug individually or the two attached together without the presence of graphene.

With all the media coverage of graphene's amazing properties, it is easy to be discouraged by the lack of commerical products featuring this material. But bear in mind that it has been only a decade since its discovery -- an incredibly short time in the realm of scientific progress. Rest assured that the graphene technologies are just around the corner and they have the potential to revolutionize any number of fields, including those we have yet to even consider.