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Graphene: A wonder material - Roanoke Times: News

Graphene has been discussed on the Slope before so I posted this.

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech physicist Chenggang Tao sits at a desk in his lab, slips on some latex gloves and pulls a small plastic container from a drawer.

The material inside is labeled “graphene,” but that usually doesn’t mean a whole lot to anyone outside of the scientific community.

“That’s it,” Tao says as he holds up a somewhat anticlimactic square-inch piece of the so-called “wonder material” that has many scientists in a tizzy.

Tao’s sample didn’t look like much more than a piece of copper foil with a transparent film on top.

But he was just the first of many researchers eager to explain it was so much more. They each ran through the same list of graphene’s seemingly too-good-to-be-true properties as if they were selling OxiClean.

It does it all.

It’s 200 times stronger than steel, virtually weightless and as thin as a single atom. It’s flexible, stretchable and nearly transparent. It conducts electricity better than anything else and is made of carbon, which is readily available in nature. Graphene looks like a sheet of paper, so it can be tailored to fit any shape.

“And now, one more thing …,” Tech researcher Vinh Nguyen added like a true pitchman: It’s a better conductor of heat than what’s used in manufacturing today.

Graphene is well known among scientists, but its fame — and use — has yet to reach far outside the lab as the discovery prepares to mark its 10th anniversary in October.

It’s studied at basically every major research institution, including Tech. The labs that work with graphene on campus are part of a worldwide race to be the first to push the booming technology further and eventually use it to build novel new consumer products.

All the properties are there, Tech researcher Marwan Al-Haik said, now it’s just a matter of design.

“The material has the promise; that’s checked. The idea is how to grow it for particular applications; that’s what the challenge is,” Al-Haik said. “The challenge now is to make a large quantity of it in certain patterns.”

Some scientists have already filed patents for things such as phone batteries that would be able to charge in seconds, flexible touchscreens and parts that would make faster computers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded one research group a grant to develop graphene condoms, and HEAD has released a line of lightweight tennis racquets made with graphene.

When the first researchers to isolate the material were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2010, a description released with the announcement reported you could theoretically build “an almost invisible hammock” out of graphene that would be able to hold a housecat, but weigh as much as one of the cat’s whiskers.

Like most graphene researchers, Al-Haik has his own list of favorite possibilities: faster computers, iPads that you can fold into your pocket or television screens you can roll up and store in luggage when you travel.

“It’s more sci-fi, but I think that’s the nature of research,” he said. “Everything starts as sci-fi, but it becomes realistic. This can become realistic in a matter of years, not decades. … I think a lot of these applications [may enter the commercial market] within 10 years.”

At the atomic level, graphene is really nothing more than a one-atom-thick sheet of the same kind of graphite that’s used in pencils.

In block form, the carbon atoms that make up graphite are brittle and easy to break apart. But when you slice that block down to a layer that’s a single atom thick, you’re left with a completely unique material.

In 2004, researchers at the University of Manchester in England were the first to report they had isolated graphene from graphite. A pair of scientists there famously did it with everyday adhesive tape. They stuck the tape to graphite, peeled it off and sure enough: Some of the flakes were one atom thick.

This method didn’t produce the kind of large graphene sheets needed for practical use, but it was the first step toward the graphene gold rush.

“That’s part of the excitement there and competition,” Tech researcher Vito Scarola said. “So what matters is that you’re the first, because a lot of people are going to be doing this stuff. And that you have a good idea — not just the first.”


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