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Widely described as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, graphene’s beginnings are modest. The 2D material was first produced in 2004, when two professors at the University of Manchester used Scotch tape to peel flakes of graphene off a chunk of graphite.
The material is a crystalline allotrope of carbon, a characteristic it shares with diamonds and graphite. Put simply, all three are made up of carbon atoms bonded together in different ways. For instance, graphite consists of carbon atoms bonded together in sheets of a hexagonal lattice, while graphene is made up of a single graphite sheet.
The professors who first produced graphene eventually went on to earn the Nobel Prize for their work with the material, and a quick glance at the things graphene is capable of makes it easy to see why.
As The Guardian explains, graphene’s impressive list of characteristics includes being a better electricity conductor than copper, impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel — but six times lighter — and “almost perfectly transparent since it only absorbs 2% of light.” Further, “chemical components can be added to its surface to alter its properties.”
And the benefits of graphene only continue to grow. Most recently, news surfaced that the material may be able to double the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries, which have risen to the fore since Tesla Motors’ (NASDAQ:TSLA) announcement that it plans to build a massive lithium-ion battery gigafactory.
While that all sounds pretty positive, graphene by no means comes without drawbacks. One key issue is production costs. Though production methods other than the Scotch tape procedure mentioned above now exist, they are not cost effective. Indeed, as Dr. Gordon Chiu of graphene research, development and investment company Grafoid has emphasized, making graphene is not yet economically feasible.
That issue is tied into another important consideration: applications. While the above information shows that there are many potential applications for graphene, the cost of producing the material means that as yet there are no noteworthy commercial applications for it.
Scientists are of course looking to change that — one group in particular that’s hoping to do so is the Graphene Flagship, whose mission is to bring academic and industrial researchers together to take graphene out of the lab and into society over the next decade. The organization was formed in 2013 and has a budget of 1 billion euros.
A final issue is that a little graphene goes a long way. That means even if commercial applications for the material are developed, even then there may not be significant demand. Stephen Riddle of Asbury Carbons has predicted that while graphene will be “a raw material of the future,” there will not be much demand for it in the near term.
Despite those drawbacks, many believe prospects for graphene are good. It will certainly be interesting to see what new applications are developed and if ultimately commercial applications for the material are found.