In 1961, WC’s sixth grade teacher, the late Jerry Norum, told his students that “LASERs” were going to be the “next big thing.” He was right, of course; lasers are ubiquitous now, scanning groceries, transmitting data, playing music, performing surgery and serving hundreds of other tasks. They were, indeed, the “next big thing.”1
Is graphene the next big thing?
What’s graphene? It’s a two-dimensional carbon molecule mesh with individual carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon lattice. A single layer of carbon atoms in a kind of molecular crochet. Or a kind of molecular atomic wire.
Think of a beehive honeycomb, but made of individual atoms. It’s the basic molecular structure from which many other allotropes of carbon are assembled, including graphite, diamond, charcoal, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes.
Graphene has been around a while, discovered and re-discovered, but its very strange characteristics really began to be recognized in the 1990s. In fact, the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene. Graphene films are impervious to gas, have unusual electrical properties and are transparent to visible light, among other unusual properties. The obstacle to their widespread use is that they are difficult to make in the most useful, purest forms.
But the current excitement about graphene lies in their potential as a key component of a new generation of more powerful batteries. It turns out that if you take two graphene sheets and put lithium between them, you can pack the amount of lithium – and the potential for a high-density, high-powered battery – into the sandwich at very high levels. Instead of being stored as lithium carbide, as it is in a common lithium ion battery, it’s packed in as crystals of pure lithium, in a very dense form. The potential for energy storage may be as much as an order of magnitude higher than existing batteries.
Not that we are going to see those batteries in stores soon; there are still a lot of unresolved issues. Not only are the pure graphene sheets very difficult to make; the technologies that get the highest quality are not readily scalable. Nor does science know yet if graphene sheets will hold their structure longer than traditional carbon electrodes. But, as the fortune teller told WC a while back, the omens are auspicious.
Graphene protective films? Flexible graphene semiconductors? Graphene room temperature superconductors? Still a ways out. But the promise of graphene is very real. Stay tuned.
- Despite what Murray Hamilton told Dustin Hoffman, the next big thing was never plastics. ↩