Ten seconds from the end of Back to the Future my brain exploded. I was seven and found the movie playing for the 567th time on TBS. I had seen stuff "from the future" in cartoons and on Power Rangers, but I had never thought “That could be real.” When they get into the DeLorean and the wheels folded down and the car took off, my mouth literally dropped open and I slapped the sides of my face (I had just watched Home Alone).
I couldn’t believe it. We had flying cars! How had I missed the announcement? I’d learn in about another thirty seconds from my sister that it was not real, but it was the first time I seriously believed that I could actually be living in the future. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that something from the future is here today, and you can find it right in your pencil.
That thing from the future is graphene.
What Is Graphene?
Graphenea, a research company researching the the mass production of graphene, says graphene is a “one atom thick layer of the commonly found mineral graphite.” What’s so special about graphene? Graphene is “the strongest material ever recorded, more than three hundred times stronger than A36 structural steel, at 130 gigapascals, and more than forty times stronger than diamond.”
You might ask, “But if graphene is made of graphite, then how is it so strong? I can break my pencil. I can’t break a diamond.” Well, graphene has strong bonds in 2D, but diamonds have strong bonds in 3D. Graphite is like layers of graphene stacked on top of each other. Because they don’t have strong bonds going up and down, the layers can just slide off each other. But when you can just have a layer of graphite one atom thick, it is stronger than any material on the face of the planet that is more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber.
Why You Should Care
But now you’re asking, “So we have a really thin, strong, super-conductive material. So what?” Imagine if your touch screen phone had a screen that was stronger than a diamond, and you could roll it up like a cigarette. Apple and Samsung are already fighting over who can get that phone to the market first.
You know those super computers of the future that will read our minds and then make us the breakfast we didn’t even know we were craving? Part of the problem with designing those computer chips is that they overheat because the silicon we make computer chips out of can't handle the heat. Graphene doesn’t overheat. In fact, it is possible that graphene breaks Fourier’s Law of physics. Fourier’s law says that no matter how much material you have, it conducts heat the same way. However, with graphene, the more material you have, the better it conducts heat. Not only could this mean we have the ability to make incredibly fast computer chips, but it could also mean that needing fans or cooling vents in your computer is a thing of the past. It could also mean a longer life for computers since they won’t overheat.
If you’re like, “That’s all fine and good for you capitalistic, technophiles who are concerned with your profit margins, but we need to solve problems that all of humanity faces!” Graphene has a solution for that too, buckeroo. Lockheed-Martin has developed a a product called Perforene that uses a sheet of graphene with holes punched in it to filter water. Apparently Perforeneis “more effective at sea water desalination at a fraction of the cost of industry-standard reverse osmosis systems.”
What’s the Hold Up?
If graphene can do all this cool stuff, why don’t we see it all over the place right now? Well, part of the problem is making it. It’s easy enough to make graphite, but to make sheets of graphene that are so thin they are considered “2D” is really difficult and expensive.
It’s like this: when you have a small meal at a really fancy restaurant, it costs a lot of money because the chef had to put a lot of time and effort into making that one little meal. Then comes along Chef Boyardee and he wants to put that fancy meal in a can and sell it to the masses. To mass produce that one little meal and make it taste the exact same as that meal prepared by that well trained chef is not easy. It can be done, but it takes a lot of research, trial, and error.
That’s where graphene makers are at right now. They’ve figured out how to make sheets of the stuff by “growing it” but it is a painstaking process that takes a long time. However, scientists keep coming up with ideas that they believe will speed up the production of this miracle material. Some Irish scientist suggest blending it up with a mixer with soap and water. A couple of German guys think they can make it using a bath of inorganic salts and electricity. In either case, the breakthroughs are coming.
Graphene will be upon us before long. It will arrive and become as commonplace as lithium-ion batteries, plastic, and perhaps stainless steel. You might even look back in ten years and think, “Man, how did we live without this stuff?” I’d suggest that you just take a moment to soak up the fact that right now we are sitting on the brink of the future.