Some of the most popular news stories on the Controlled Environments website in recent months have been about graphene, which has been dubbed as a “wonder material.” At one atom thick, this two-dimensional form of carbon is the thinnest material known — one million times thinner than a human hair. It is the world’s most conductive material and, at 200 times stronger than steel, it may very well be the strongest.
Six years after their groundbreaking isolation of graphene, researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov of The University of Manchester were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their work. The university hosts The National Graphene Institute and is a member of the European Commission’s research initiative “Graphene Flagship,” which is tasked with taking graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society within 10 years.
One such application for graphene could be the ability to see through walls and bodies, thanks to a light detector that is able to see an extraordinarily broad band of wavelengths. Graphene is suitable for use in a terahertz detector because when light is absorbed by the electrons suspended in the honeycomb lattice of the graphene, they do not lose their heat to the lattice but instead retain that energy. An electrical signal is able to detect the presence of terahertz waves beneath the surface of materials that appear opaque to the human eye, or even X-rays.
Some researchers believe that graphene could be used to manufacture lighter, more protective bulletproof vests. Multilayer graphene is said to be exceptional anisotropic material because of its layered structure composed of two-dimensional carbon lattices. Microscopic ballistic have been performed in the hopes that such an invention can one day be possible.
A recent news story illustrated how graphene strips can be used as “flying carpets” to deliver anticancer drugs to cancer cells, where each drug targets the distinct part of the cell where it will be most effective. One of the drugs was physically bound to the graphene, due to parallels in the molecular structure of both the drug and the graphene. Tests on lab mice showed that the “flying carpet” technique performed better than either drug in isolation.
Researchers have discovered a method by which some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s causing the greenhouse effect can be used to create an advanced, highvalue material for use in energy storage products. This nanotechnology discovery won’t be able to soak up enough carbon to solve global warming, but it may provide an ecofriendly and inexpensive way to make nanoporous graphene for use in “supercapacitors” — devices that can store energy and release it rapidly.
The use of graphene and other carbon-based nanomaterials – for example, carbon nanotubes (rolled-up tubes of graphene) — is quickly growing. However, some studies suggest that graphene oxide may be toxic to humans. Graphene oxide nanoparticles are very mobile in waterways such as streams and lakes, and therefore they may cause negative environmental impacts if they are released. Researchers must keep such concerns in mind when studying graphene.
In order for graphene to gain traction, it needs to prove itself to be better (and cheaper) than products or materials already on the market. Additionally, it needs to be able to be manufactured on a commercial scale. Universities and research centers around the world are building cleanrooms and labs equipped to conduct further research on this “wonder material” to see what applications it may be used for in the future.
MaryBeth DiDonna is Managing Editor of Controlled Environments.
This Letter from the Editor appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Controlled Environments.