Graphene — On the Cusp of a Microelectronic Revolution
Mar 12, 2020 · 4 min read
In 2004, two professors working in a joint effort by the University of Manchester and the Institute for Microelectronics in Chernogolovka created the thinnest material known to mankind: graphene, a material which had been theorized all the way back in 1947 by physicist P.R. Wallace. The method to obtain a single sheet of graphene was simple yet effective: they mechanically exfoliated thin layers of graphite from a graphite crystal using Scotch tape and then dissolved said tape. What remained were tiny specks of this elusive material. A few years later, the two professors who conducted this experiment, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.” Their paper was instrumental in increasing research done on the material, as it highlighted both its real-world practicality and the simplicity of working with high-quality graphene. In 2013, the European Union issued a €1 billion grant to fund research into potential graphene applications, creating the Graphene Flagship consortium alongside eight leading universities and research centers in Europe.
Graphene, as it was discovered in 2004, using Scotch tape on a piece of graphite.
Why was this discovery so astounding and prize-worthy? To answer this question, we have to look at what exactly graphene is. Simply put, graphene is an allotrope of carbon, just like diamonds, charcoal, and its three-dimensional counterpart, graphite. This means that, while these materials are formed by the same underlying atoms, carbon, its different arrangements give the materials completely different physical properties. While diamonds are formed by tetrahedral lattices of carbon atoms, graphene is formed by sheets of hexagonal lattices.
An anatomical view of graphene’s hexagonal lattices.
Graphene’s discovery was important because no one believed that a single anatomical layer of graphene could be stable. Additionally, this certain arrangement of carbon atoms is over one hundred times stronger than the strongest steel. Furthermore, graphene is flexible, nearly transparent, and a great conductor, conducting heat better than any other material and conducting electricity just as well as copper does. All of these factors rendered it a material with incredible real-world potential that would be applicable in a wide variety of areas, anywhere from water filtration to energy generation and storage. However, you may wonder, “If a material with such impressive properties exists, why have I never heard of or seen graphene products?” Well, as the saying goes, “Graphene can do anything except leave the lab.”
Unfortunately, rarely can a recently-discovered scientific breakthrough translate immediately into new and exciting products ready for consumers. For example, carbon fiber was discovered in the 1950s, but it did not appear in commercial products until 30 to 40 years later. While graphene garnered attention in the scientific community, large companies with established infrastructure and production lines were hesitant to dive into such a risky yet promising venture, and startups could neither afford the high initial capital required to mass-produce graphene nor secure the funding required. This fact rang even truer a few years ago, when inefficiencies in the first graphene production lines resulted in it costing about €300,000 per kilo.
As depicted in the chart above, graphene prices have decreased significantly since 2010.
Nonetheless, since then, the price of graphene has fallen dramatically, rendering it possible for companies to seriously consider utilizing graphene to improve current products or create entirely new products.
Graphite could trigger a great deal of innovation particularly in the consumer electronics industry, especially when it comes to smartphones. From the possibility of lightweight graphene-based superconductors (which have no electrical resistance) to extremely lightweight foldable screens, the possibilities are infinite. Small companies and startups have already taken the initiative. For example, Los Angeles-based “Real Graphene,” a startup founded by two UC Berkeley graduates, is selling graphene-enhanced portable batteries, which have a much longer lifespan and quicker charging time than other batteries.
This type of innovation isn’t limited to small companies; large companies are also investing resources in developing graphene-based products. For example, Samsung, the company with the highest number of graphene-related patents in the world, is developing an alternative to industry-standard lithium-ion batteries, which is slated to fully charge in under 30 minutes.
While investments in researching and developing graphene-based products in the consumer electronics market have grown significantly in the past few years, companies still face numerous challenges before those products become mainstream. The only one I’ll discuss is how to compete with a silicon industry which has already had 70 years of development before it. While graphene may be established as a superior material to silicon from a purely scientific point of view, it is also impossible to immediately replace the entire silicon industry since there already exists a large network of companies buying and selling this semiconducting element that is also commonly found in nature.
Nonetheless, like carbon fiber before it, only time will tell whether graphene products can overcome fierce economic competition and become the next wave of technological innovation.