Recently the science and technology fields have been abuzz with news and studies about the rockstar material graphene. It’s hard to read the front page of a science news website without finding graphene somewhere. It’s been touted as the future of touchscreen devices and memory storage units. It’s been used to create the world’s smallest transistor, which measures one atom thick and ten atoms across. Even particle physicists at the CERN headquarters in Geneva have taken an interest, postulating that graphene could be used in atomic supercolliders and lead to new advances in quantum physics.
While the scientific community has been researching graphene for well over 20 years, the true media blitz only began in 2010 when Manchester University researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work isolating the material.
But what exactly is graphene?
Graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon. It’s essentially the same material on your pencil tip, only shaved down to a nearly two-dimensional plane. Though extremely thin, graphene is the strongest material ever made (two hundred times stronger than structural steel). Meanwhile, it’s also lightweight and can also be stretched like rubber. More importantly, however, graphene is an excellent electrical current conductor. And it’s this property which has green inventors and renewable energy gurus the most excited.
One of the reoccurring problems with the electric car is battery life. Very few people want to invest in a car that needs to recharge constantly and can’t be used for long road trips. The Nissan Leaf, for instance, has a driving range of about 100 miles. Any further than that and you’ll need to recharge. While 100 miles may be great for many city drivers, those with longer commutes may be in trouble. Plus, the lithium-ion battery holds less and less electricity as it ages. After five years of use that 100 mile range may be reduced to 60 or 70.
That’s where graphene comes in. A new study at Northwestern University has found that a graphene electrode can significantly improve electrical capacity and recharge rate of the lithium-ion battery. This new battery would have 10x the storage power of our current lithium-ion batteries and charge 10x faster. Instead of 100 miles, your car might be able to get 1000. Instead of taking over two hours to charge, you could be on your way again in 15 minutes. Moreover, after 150 charge and discharge cycles, this new battery is still five times more efficient than any battery currently available.
But graphene’s potential isn’t just limited to battery life; it could also revolutionize our solar-energy panels. Last year, researchers at MIT demonstrated that light shone on graphene can generate an electrical current. While the results need more testing and development, the discovery could lead to more efficient and less expensive solar panels. Solar energy companies would no longer need to invest in rare materials to produce their solar cells. Solar energy could be captured using carbon, one of the most abundant elements on the planet.
Graphene technologies may need a few years before they become available to the consumer. Nevertheless, we can all look forward to graphene’s future. The research of today promises to be the brighter, greener living of tomorrow.