Monday, May 23, 2011

Graphene - The Buzzword of the Decade

It's almost graduation time. If you are invited to a graduation party, and you're too cheap to get a gift, just pull the graduate aside and whisper into his/her ear "graphene". I read Popular Science and all that related mish-mash, and I can only vaguely remember hearing about graphene until this year. I've probably read a dozen articles in the past five months that mention graphene as the basis for groundbreaking technologies. Check out all the mentions of graphene in a Google news search.

What is graphene? Graphene is as simple as the lead in your pencil. It is elemental carbon, a/k/a graphite, but by convention, it is called graphene when it is found in a sheet that is one atom thick. These sheets can be layered to build a variety of shapes. When you press down with the point of your pencil, you create a little bit of graphene (mixed with carbon of other shapes and descriptions as well.)

Most of us are familiar with the carbon fiber sheets that are used to build aircraft race cars. Those sheets, though thin, are much thicker than the graphene sheets that scientists are exploring today. Graphene sheets are among the strongest substances known to science, 700 times stronger than steel according to Wikipedia. Graphene can be manipulated to show a variety of electrical properties, from rapid conduction of electrons for fast computing, to large scale electron holding in the form of ultracapacitors. There are even experiments now using graphene as the basis for cheap, thin-film solar cells.

Why the sudden interest in graphene? Scientists long known about the existence of graphene, but the substance wasn't readily available for study. Recently though, scientists have figured out how to create industrial quantities of graphene from cheap, readily available materials such as sugar and plexiglass. Graphene may eventually be the enabling technology giving us cheap, light, strong, recyclable cars, that are powered by ultracapacitors and charged by cheap home solar power, but before we get there, we need to be careful of con artists who will use the buzzword graphene to separate us and our clients from our money. Excuse me, I have to sell an ostrich ranch.

Congratulations to all the graduates of 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.