Graphene is a material made of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice with the thickness of a single atom. And according to experts, it may prove to be one of the most disruptive technologies of the coming century.
The material was first created in 2004, by Manchester University researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who used adhesive tape to peel off layers of graphite until a flake with the thickness of a single atom remained.
Graphene, they found, has the ability to conduct electricity as efficiently as copper, is one of the strongest known materials and outperforms many others as a conductor of heat. In 2010, Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.
The qualities of graphene have clear applications in electronics and information technology. Scientists predict that graphene transistors will be substantially faster than the ones found in silicon chips, as they can operate at a higher frequency. This, it is believed, will allow for substantially more efficient computers.
The material is also expected to replace electrodes, such as indium tin oxides, in devices with organic light emitting diode (OLED) touch screens due to being virtually transparent and possessing superior properties.
Small, inexpensive and sensitive photonic sensors used for environmental and health monitoring could also benefit from graphene due to the material’s ability to detect minute electrical and chemical changes in single atoms.
According to Tim Harper, a physicist and founder of emerging technology consultancy Cientifica, the case for graphene becomes more compelling as the so-called ‘rare earth’ minerals used in many electrical components become scarcer. “Graphene is simple to make, process and hook up electrically, which is why it’s suddenly getting more traction,” says Harper.
So far, however, graphene has proved difficult to mass-produce. But an initiative by Manchester University, the hopes to change that.
Last year, chancellor George Osborne announced that £50 million was being allocated to the University in order to fund the UK’s first purpose-built research facility dedicated to finding ways of commercialising research into graphene.
The University has now applied for a further £23 million from the European Regional Development Fund so that the Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub can open by early 2015.