In 2010 Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov received the Nobel Prize in Physics for paradigm-shifting experiments with Graphene. It’s been over ten years since the wonder material graphene hype train passed through society.
Graphene made technology news headlines faster than Greta Thunberg, sending the United Nations to the naughty corner. However, much like Thunberg, it has gone quiet. We all want to know why it has yet to take over the world and whether this wonder material deserves all the hype.
According to verge science, it consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, forming a flat sheet. These ball-shaped carbon atoms repeat themselves and continue at an atomic scale for significant distances. The material is highly flexible, transparent, and 200 times stronger than steel.
Reason Why has Graphene yet to take over the world?
While many advancements have been made in graphene production and product implementation, a cost-effective method of mass production is yet to be discovered. Currently, the cheapest ways of producing Graphene also yield lower quality graphene unsuitable for production use.
Simply put, it is plain difficult to make and extremely difficult to make cheaply. However, that doesn’t mean all is lost because there have been some exciting ideas and trials around production. But unfortunately, production may not be the only thing keeping us from finally getting our space elevator.
Applications of Graphene
The International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC) supports a cost-effective manufacturing method to produce graphene ribbons that are durable enough to construct a tether, fulfilling humanity’s centuries-old dream of building a Space Elevator.
Space elevators are a concept that was conceived in 1895 by Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and gained even more prominence in the 1978 novel, ‘Fountains of Paradise’ by writer Arthur C. Clarke. The fact that Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel makes it a contender material to be used to create a link chain or a cable. The cable is attached to a fixed point on the equator. At the same time, the other end is connected to a counterweight in space over 35,790 kilometers high.
One of the current issues with producing Graphene is that the growth of Graphene originates from multiple spots the same and is comparable to tiny flakes of snow landing on pavement. These form separately and gradually increase to then butt up against one another, which produces discontinuities in the production.
Moreover, the production process is still in the development phase and is part of the requirement for the space elevator. To create a structure that is a single molecule at a macro scale, it is necessary to construct the entire length using defect-free sheets of Graphene. This was once considered impossible, but new advancements have made it achievable.
Graphene has been identified as being able to improve medicine. More specifically, its applications in biomedicine are vast and have been categorized in the following areas:
- Transport (delivery) systems
- Tissue engineering
- Biological agents (for example, antimicrobials)
What’s Holding Graphene Back?
When Graphene was first discovered, it was presented to the world wearing a cloak of pure potential. Graphene could probably do it.
Want something light as a feather and 200 times strong than steel? Graphene. Want something that can make silicon obsolete as a conductor? Graphene. Want something to turn the medical world on its head? Graphene. You get the picture.
So, if this Graphene is so great, shouldn’t we see it everywhere? Or were those potentials simply over-exaggerations? The answer to the second question is Graphene’s potential is extreme. But, unfortunately, the answer to the first question is a bit more complicated.
Graphene Has A Mass Production Problem
The first and most significant roadblock is production. Graphene was first discovered accidentally by pulling off thin layers of a graphite block using scotch tape.
When the scientist looked at the residue on the tape, it was the thinnest substance ever created. It was also substantially more robust than steel. Ten years and a Noble Prize later, the scotch tape method remains one of the best Graphene production methods.
Scotch tape assembly lines don’t exactly scale well, so we need a better way. However, according to Medium, Graphene can be made in many ways, from using lasers to mashing up graphite in a blender to produce Graphene.
But the problem with all methods is two-fold; scaling it up and producing high-quality Graphene. So here are some of the most important strategies.
Method 1: Using Acids To Produce Graphene
One way that Graphene is produced is by adding sulfuric or nitric acid to graphite flakes. The acid causes oxidation which splits or breaks the graphite apart, peeling off layers, or flakes, of Graphene.
The resulting mixture then undergoes a lengthy filtration process which yields graphene oxide. The oxygen must then be removed, leaving a pure graphene coating.
This chemical exfoliation production method is currently the best producer of market-grade Graphene.
Method 2: Using Metals To Grow Graphene
Another popular way to produce Graphene is by growing it on metal sheets, like fungi.
For this process, a copper sheet is heated in a vacuum chamber to 1000 degrees Celsius and exposed to methane gas. The carbon atoms in the gas react with the heated copper and deposit graphene onto its surface.
Other producers have found that adding nitrogen to the mix vastly reduces the heat and energy needed to start the reaction.
A current method involves adding soybean oil to a nickel sheet and heating it, which then starts a chemical reaction that produces Graphene.
The biggest problem with this ‘ chemical vapor deposition,’ or ‘CVD,’ method is that they are slow. It only sometimes produces the high-quality Graphene you would need for market use.
Method 3: Using Explosions To Get Graphene
One of the most recent and promising methods of producing Graphene involves a contained explosion.
A combustion chamber is filled with oxygen and a hydrocarbon gas like acetylene. The mixture is ignited with a spark, provided the chamber is built well, and the explosion produces Graphene. So quit a bit of it.
Ironically, the production of Graphene with this method was accidental. However, it is currently the method with the most potential in scalability and cost-effectiveness, despite arguably being the most dangerous.
The biggest test of this method will be if the Graphene is pure enough or of a quality high enough that it can be put to market and used in products.
Graphene Has A Market Investment Problem
Another speed bump in the graphene road relates to its time to market. The extreme hype that was created around the discovery of Graphene wasn’t necessarily good for its development in the long run.
Graphene was simple to produce and had boundless uses. It was an investor’s dream. And the money that flowed toward its research was any scientist’s dream.
Unfortunately, mass-producing the stuff turned out to be rather tricky, and it was soon becoming clear that the investors would need more time to make it to the promised land.
Investors had burnt their fingers on the graphene promise and withdrew. Sure, some companies were desperately trying to cash in on the hype by making products with traces of Graphene for no apparent purpose apart from clever marketing. Still, more is needed to spur investor confidence.
Unfortunately, this is a compounding problem. Suppose investors withdraw because development is taking too long. In that case, development will take even longer due to the need for more funding for research and development.
Graphene Has A Price Problem
At some stage, a graphene product will inevitably hit the market with immense success and send the roller coaster of consumer demand spiraling down the track toward the next revolution of technological advancement.
But for that to happen, the product needs to be affordable to the masses. However, affordability is highly unlikely, with a half-inch graphene flake costing around $150.
This price problem goes back to the production problem. According to American scientists, the best Graphene is produced using chemical exfoliation, which requires pure graphite to start the process.
Pure graphite is a mined mineral, meaning its availability is controlled by companies controlling the mines. As a result, those companies control the production and price of Graphene.
The strange thing in this equation of control is that Graphene is pure carbon. And carbon is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.
It is likely that Graphene’s needed breakthrough will only come when a production method is discovered that competes with the quality of graphite-based methods.
Graphene Has A Competition Problem
The final curveball that Graphene needs to hit is the fact that it has competition. Indeed, there aren’t many materials we can build a space elevator with, but for Graphene to be successful, it needs to replace other commonly used elements.
For example, one of Graphene’s most promising straight-to-market uses is as a conductor of electricity. Its conductive properties mean that it could improve our electronic devices. Still, for that to happen, it needs to dethrone other materials like silicon.
Unfortunately, Verge Science is correct in saying that for Graphene to win the Game of Thrones, being better isn’t enough. It needs to be a lot better.
Switching elements inside circuitry is an expensive research and development process. Companies have used silicon for a long time and have mainly worked out the kinks. Graphene is bound to come with problems that will be costly to resolve.
So, companies are not motivated to switch to a product that will be slightly better. Graphene could be miles better, but we will know when someone is brave enough to pay for its practical development.
Graphene May Still Take Over The World: Just one more breakthrough.
The enthusiasts out there will be happy to know that, in all likelihood, Graphene may still have the last laugh. It’s easy to think that ten years is a long time, but it isn’t in the arena of new materials’ time to market.
Tech Radar pointed out that it’s important to remember that many of the materials used in smartphones were discovered in the sixties. Likewise, decades ago, plastic was discovered and eventually changed the world, but only after some time.
Plastic had many of the same challenges as Graphene has today, but its breakthrough did eventually come, and now our everyday lives are built upon a foundation of plastics.
There are signs on the horizon that the dawn of Graphene is closer than we think. For example, Samsung is actively using Graphene to improve battery capacity.
If they succeed, it will soon be that every Android phone has a graphene battery, and only a year or two before iPhones ship out with graphene technology, ultimately changing the world for good.
Graphene is poised to be the most groundbreaking material discovered in the last century. However, getting it to market is a complex process. The biggest challenge with Graphene is that it is difficult and expensive to mass produce at a high enough quality for market use.
The production method uses raw graphite, which needs to be purchased from mining companies that control the price and supply. There are alternative methods, but research and development slowed after investors were overpromised and withdrew. Finally, Graphene must compete with materials used for many years.
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