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Changing the world, one carbon atom at a time

Everything from phones to cars to skyscrapers are made out of raw materials, and generally the bigger you are the stronger you need to be. When you think of the strongest raw materials, you might think of steel, graphite and titanium. But all this is about to change.

Enter scene: graphene, a material with the strength of The Hulk but with the delicacy of a ballerina. Weighing in at 0.77 milligrams per square meter, and being only one carbon atom thick (a pinhead of carbon atoms could travel around the earth 37 times), the global impact of graphene is thought to revolutionise multiple industries including, medicine, electronics, information technology, energy, building and design.


Lattice structure of a sheet of graphene. Source: Google creative commons

Graphene could potentially be used to:

  • Lighter, safer and more economic cars
  • Lighter, stronger and faster aeroplanes
  • Build lightweight prosthetic’s
  • Flexible and transparent computer screens
  • Flexible and indestructible phones (something Samsung has already patented)
  • Lightweight laptop computers
  • Space Elevators (my personal favourite)

Flexible glass surface composed of graphene. Source: Google creative commons

The major drawback with the wide spread use of graphene is that it is rather complicated to produce in the laboratory.

In 2010, UK physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”, and since then our understanding of graphene has only grown. China seems to be leading the world in graphene research with 2204 patents filed, ahead of 1,754 for the United States; 1,160 for South Korea; and 54 for the U.K, as reported by the BBC. Furthermore, South Korean tech giant Samsung has more patents than any single company.

However, China’s grip on graphene intellectual property is set to be challenged with The European Union approving a €1 billion ($1.35 billion) research grant to Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone giant, for the commercial development of graphene. In a statement to CNET, Nokia maintains that they have been working on the development of graphene since 2006 and have found many applications for the material, including its use mobile phones. “Before this point in time, we figured out a way to manufacture cheap iron that led to the Industrial Revolution. Then there was silicon. Now it’s time for graphene,” as said by research leader Jani Kivioja, at Nokia Research Center.

Nobel Prize winner Prof. Andre Geim has voiced concerns that Western companies lack the support to engage in graphene research as its development could take decades, which is something that tends to frighten companies out of research funding. Also, UK science minister David Willetts has identified graphene as a national research priority, stating that it’s the classic case of Brittan inventing something – and other countries developing it. The UK seems to now be much more proactive in graphene development, with Cambridge University together with Nokia, Philips, Dyson, BAE Systems and the British Government have announced plans to erect a graphene development centre on campus to promote graphene research. Furthermore, Manchester is set to home a £61 million ($96 million) National Graphene Institute to further promote its development inside the UK.

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