What is Graphene and What Will it Bring to the World of Electronics?

By | on 19th May 2015 | 0 Comment

Last updated July 2017
Have you heard about graphene yet? If not you’re sure to hear about this revolutionary new material soon. Dubbed as a ‘Super Material’, graphene possesses extraordinary properties that have the scientific community excited about all the amazing innovations this breakthrough could make possible.

What is Graphene?

So first of all what exactly is graphene? To put it simply graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon; very thin in-fact (1 atom to be precise, making it the thinnest compound known to man!). The structure of graphene is made up of tightly packed carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal lattice which looks a bit like the honeycomb pattern found in beehives.

It was first theorised by P.R. Wallace in 1947, but the discovery of graphene wasn’t until 2004 when Manchester University researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov successfully extracted single-atom-thick graphene from graphite. In recognition of their work, Geim and Novoselov were both awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

So What Makes Graphene So Special?

Graphene is perhaps best known for its strength. A single layer of graphene is thought to be around 100 – 300 times stronger than steel. A sheet of graphene as thin as Clingfilm could support the weight of an elephant. Some have even suggested an elephant would need to stand on a pencil so that all of its weight was focussed on a single point to break through that sheet of graphene. Graphene can be crumbled, twisted, folded or rolled up without losing its strength, and whilst retaining the ability to return to its original form.

Graphene also happens to be a fantastic conductor of electricity. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University created a graphene yarn that can be knotted and stretched without fracturing. It’s not quite ready just yet, but with further development it may be able to act as a superior alternative to copper.

On top of this graphene conducts heat, is extremely flexible and only absorbs 2.3% of light making it transparent.

What Is Graphene Used For?

Considering the apparent super-properties graphene possesses, all sorts of wildly imaginative applications have been suggested. For example, the idea of a space elevator that can transport resources directly into outer space has long been theorised but never actually taken seriously. Graphene is being touted as a potential core material that could help to one day bring this idea to life.

This sounds very exciting of course, but in reality the more immediate applications are a lot more down to earth.

Graphene Batteries

The technology used in our electrical devices has rapidly evolved over the past few years, and so has the amount of electricity they need to run. It seems every release of a new Smartphone brings additional energy-sucking technology and a thinner design, leaving less space for a battery.

Well this is where graphene could prove to be revolutionary. Researchers are developing graphene-based super capacitors that have the potential to charge hundreds of times faster than current batteries and hold a great deal more energy. Imagine if your phone only needed charging once a month.

Graphene Light Bulbs

The first commercially viable graphene-based product is set to go on sale later this year in the form of a graphene-based light bulb. Its design conducts electricity more efficiently than conventional light bulbs meaning it will use less energy and last much longer than the light bulbs in our houses today. What a bright idea.

Unbreakable Touch Screen Devices

Now this is one we’re sure everybody will be able to relate to. Have you ever dropped your treasured iPhone or iPad and watched in horror as it plummeted towards the ground shattering its beautiful screen upon impact? Well, this may be a thing of the past thanks to graphene mobile displays.

Samsung, Apple and Google have been busy registering patents for flexible mobile devices. The next era of mobile phones will incorporate graphene technology that allows them to be bent and folded, and most importantly absorb sudden impacts without shattering. Graphene-based mobile displays could also provide us with new responsive touch screens that use less power than current ones.

Conductive Ink

Graphene has the potential to completely revolutionise circuit boards as we know them. Scientists have developed a graphene-based ink, and due to its conductive abilities this means that electronic circuits can be printed onto a wide variety of materials. This was demonstrated by a research team at Cambridge University who printed an electrical piano device onto a piece of fabric using graphene-based ink. Conductive inks already exist in the form of metals such as silver, but these are very expensive to produce. Graphene based inks would be a great deal cheaper and offer far better electrical conductivity.

Graphene Chips

Perhaps the most exciting advancement that graphene could bring to electronics is the prospect of super powerful chips that perform far better than those currently available today. IBM are already researching using graphene transistors in their circuits and claim to have conducted experiments where graphene circuits performed 10,000 times better than existing technology.

Due to its super strength and electrical conductivity, graphene transistors can be built at an incredibly small scale. This can allow far more transistors to be fitted onto a chip, providing more power than current silicon transistors. In their current form, Graphene transistors have no ‘switched off’ state. This is a crucial element in a transistor and without this ability graphene won’t be suitable. Further research and development will be required to bring this idea to fruition.

Solar Panels

One area where graphene-based technology is almost certainly going to make a difference is in solar energy. Current solar panels operate at around 30% efficiency but researchers in Switzerland have experimented with solar panels that incorporate graphene-based technology and their results have reported a much improved 60% efficiency. Scientists even believe graphene could be used to create a solar-power based paint that could be coated on buildings to collect energy from the sun.

Graphene Powered Audio

For all you audiophiles out there, scientists have been working with graphene to produce the next generation of sound systems. Researchers at the University of California have designed a graphene-based earphone and tests have shown it to perform at a frequency response better than a pair of commercial earphones. That may not sound too impressive at first glance but remember that this is without any audio optimisation or background acoustic development.

One of the key elements that affect audio quality is the diaphragm inside the speaker that creates airwaves by vibrating. The smaller and lighter the diaphragm the better, but as their size reduces so does their strength and stability. That is where graphene comes in. With its strength and flexibility scientists have been able to produce graphene diaphragms smaller and stronger than anything currently available. As this technology develops you can expect graphene-based speakers to offer crisper audio than anything you’ve heard before.

Are you excited about graphene? Have you been involved in any projects that use graphene-based technology? Please share your stories in the comments below.

2017 update – Modern usage and development

Graphene has now developed to stop counterfeit products being sold or bought without individuals knowing in the form of a tag on products. The idea is to use smartphones to scan the tag and verify whether products are legitimate. Read more

As of July 7th, there’s been reports about graphene being used for space applications. The unique material is now being tested in zero-gravity conditions in order to assess it’s potential for either propulsion or thermal management.

In terms of quality of life improvements. Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has funded the world’s first graphene headphones. The engineers behind the device have stated their technology could enhance speaker cones. It’s incredible strength, conductivity and light weight are an incredible combination. At present there are still issues with the cost of the material. Only time will tell if they become a massive success.

Philip King
As a technology enthusiast, Philip King is the director of PCB Train and Newbury Electronics. Philip first joined Newbury Electronics in 1981 as an accountant and in 1987 partnered with Kevin Forder as a managing director.
Philip King

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