The world of electronics, solar cells and sensors are approaching a serious change through advancements in the production of graphene.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms joined together in a perfect hexagonal bond. “Imagine chicken wire made from carbon atoms and their bonds; that’s it, that’s graphene,” says Andre Geim, professor of condensed matter physics at the University of Manchester, U.K.
“We are surrounded by three-dimensional matter and until three years ago we only knew of three-dimensional materials, even carbon nanotubes; it looks very thin, but it’s still a cylinder rolled up,” says Geim. “We encountered a sort of paradigm of two-dimensional matter, absolutely single layer of atoms in a very high-quality lattice; this is the thinnest possible material in our universe. Nothing thinner can exist.”
Using a process known as micromechanical cleavage, Geim and researchers at the University of Manchester have been able to sliver fragments of graphite into these two-dimensional fragments of graphene. Other methods for producing graphene are through epitaxial growth and the process of grinding graphite into powder and turning it into composites like graphene paper.
The downside to epitaxial graphene is it remains at five-to-seven layers of atoms as opposed to a single layer, and the downside of creating powder is there is a lack of electronic properties.
Graphene, which was only discovered in 2004, is already positioning itself within real-world applications. “Chemical sensors are already in assessment of where they could be used; it’s the most sensitive solid,” says Geim, who identified Fuji Electronics’ interest in graphene for sensors.
Under Geim’s predictions, after sensors, the next industry to adopt graphene will be the solar cell and LCD display industries through the production of transparent films. “That is the next step and probably will come within the next three-to-five years. Very, very high chance that we will be there in three-to-five years,” he says.
Geim is less optimistic, however, about graphene replacing silicon in future electronic applications. “What everyone is talking about, replacement of silicone — 20 years at best,” he says. “It’s not realistic at the moment because silicon is too big to compete with, but it seems to be the only alternative.”
Graphene has the highest electronic quality of any other material and is stronger than any other material. “On the nanoscale it’s tougher than any other material we know; its bond is stronger than diamonds, so if you make a thin layer of diamond it wouldn’t be as strong as graphene.”