Graphene earning nickname of 'miracle material'
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 10:10 p.m.
The race is on to perfect a miracle.
Governments, companies and universities around the world are dumping billions of dollars into research on graphene, carbon sheets one atom thick, discovered a few years ago.
The first group to figure out how to cheaply and reliably produce large quantities of the “miracle material” could take a leading role in a range of industries it might soon transform — among them consumer electronics, cars, medical devices and energy production and storage.
Graphene's properties until recently were the stuff of science fiction. The strongest material tested, it is the thinnest ever made. It conducts heat and electricity far better than copper and silicon, and it's so impermeable that helium, whose atoms are small enough to leak through the walls of steel tanks, can't penetrate it.
It's as flexible as rubber and as clear as lightly tinted glass.
“It is a perfect material,” said Alexander Star, a chemistry professor who leads a nanoparticle research group at the University of Pittsburgh.
Flexible electronic displays likely will be among the first commercially available products the material transforms. If tough, bendable graphene replaces brittle, costly indium tin oxide — a precious metal key to making touch screens work — electronics makers could produce flexible cellphones and tablets that wouldn't shatter if dropped.
Yet, graphene's properties allow for far more than a slimmer phone.
Thin layers, long reach
Star's group made a sensor about the size of Lincoln's jaw on a penny, with four squares infused with microscopic rolls of graphene — known as single-layer nanotubes — attached to electrodes. The carbon is so thin, it's sensitive enough to pick up the acetone made by a diabetic's body, for example.
Imagine a similar sensor with 100 squares on it, each calibrated to pick up something different, Star said. The problem isn't fitting it on the chip, he said — it's figuring out “what 100 things do we want to detect in a person's breath.”
One exhale from a patient, he said, would let doctors run tests instantly and cheaply without drawing a drop of blood.
A poster near his office shows a rendering of one of his chips plugged into an iPhone port, hinting at a possible future of routine, remote medical diagnoses.
“It has such a wide range of applications,” said James Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice University, a leading institution for nanotechnology research.
Tour led a research group that made compressed natural gas storage tanks using graphene and plastic, lighter and less permeable than metal tanks, which could make natural gas-fueled vehicles more practical.
The same technology could extend the shelf life of beer and soda.
Researchers in California used the material to make a super capacitor — like a battery but lighter, smaller and without acid — so a person could charge a cellphone in five seconds. If it powered an electric car, charging could take as little as 15 minutes, the researchers estimate, making electric car charging about as time consuming as topping off a gas tank.
Cars could drop up to two-thirds of their weight, thanks to graphene. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Mohammad Islam led a group that made tiny graphene scaffolding around which they poured melted polymer. It might eventually be possible, Islam said, to make a material as light as plastic, as strong as aluminum and made into pieces big enough to build a car.
Star began working with nanoparticles in 2000, four years before graphene's discovery. On his first day as a researcher, he wrote to a Rice University scientist who was one of the only people in the world making carbon nanotubes.
Star asked for a milligram of the material — an amount too small for the naked eye to see — for research.
He chuckles at the memory as he points out a blue plastic tub about the size of his head containing a kilogram of nanotubes — 1 million times as much as that first miniscule request. Bayer Corp. dropped it off one day, unsolicited.
“They just gave it to us as a present,” he said, smiling.
Such is the speed of “miracle” materials.
Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov made the first sheet of graphene in 2004 while working at the University of Manchester in Great Britain. Shrugging off high-tech solutions, the pair used Scotch tape to peel layer after layer off graphite — the stuff that makes pencil lead — until an atom-thick sheet was left.
Six years later, their discovery won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an award usually given for discoveries that take decades to achieve prominence. The award this year, for example, honors two scientists for a discovery in the early 1960s.
Cost of progress
The field's rapid progress has a cost. Since 2001, the government has spent about $18 billion on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which doled out most of the money in academic research grants. The money pays for a broad range of research; graphene is just one promising part.
Rather than a coordinated, national graphene research program like the European Union's, domestic agencies including the National Science Foundation and departments of Defense and Energy fund individual research projects. The science foundation spent about $622 million since 2006 on projects connected to graphene, according to a federal database.
The EU is concentrating squarely on graphene. In January, it awarded a 1 billion euro grant — equal to about $1.4 billion — to a project involving 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates, spread across 100 research groups.
“They're focusing very heavily on graphene. I wish we had the money to do that type of thing here in the U.S.,” Tour said. “I'm not sure we even have that kind of money anymore.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pittsburgh woman’s death at Drexel probed as possible meningitis
- Job cuts at AGH part of ‘strategic’ process
- Redistricting spurs faceoff for Democratic state Reps. Molchany, Readshaw
- Assessment appeals draw Mt. Lebanon residents’ ire
- Fox Chapel Area superintendent seeks rapport with students
- Ex-Sandusky lawyer investigated in divorce case
- Newsmaker: Ciara Scanlon Crossey
- Donor name to be stripped from Penn Hills library
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to hold annual public meeting March 26
- Newsmaker: Dr. Kyle Soltys
- Allegheny County Democrats endorse several incumbents in primary