Nanotechnology has produced no shortage of wonder materials, Buckyballs anyone? Trimetaspheres? Or even carbon nanotubes where producing them at anywhere near the cost that anyone would be willing to pay for them has been a struggle.
The main problem with many nanomaterials is that while they may have wondrous properties, conductivity, tensile strength, the ability to cure cancer or produce unlimited energy from fresh air, these properties are often confined to a few square nanometres, and connecting this to the outside world, which would allow these properties to be exploited has been problematic.
I was wondering the same thing about graphene. While the properties can extend over larger areas, they only do so in two dimensions, and producing large enough quantities by CVD for example looks prohibitively expensive. This is confirmed by a recent review article in Nature, A Roadmap for Graphene, whose authors include Konstatntin Novoselov who shared the Nobel Prize with Andre Geim for the discovery of graphene, and others from AstraZeneca, BASF, Texas Instruments and Samsung – which adds a bit of commercial weight to the usual academic output. One conclusion stands out though, the fact that, unlike most other nanomaterials, the graphene doesn’t have to be a perfect 2-D sheet with infinite dimensions to work.
Physicists are used to thinking of graphene as a perfect two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms. However, the paradigm is now shifting as pure science opens new technology routes: even less-than-perfect layers of graphene can be used in certain applications. In fact, different applications require different grades of graphene, bringing closer widespread practical implementation of this material.
The final part of the puzzle is how to transfer these wondrous properties to the real world, because unless we can get graphene into a form that can be used in a real world application, whether printing electronics, as a filler in polymers or as an ultracapacitor it’s still just soot.
Haydale in South Wales may have found a solution with their new printable graphene inks. A variety of applications are suggested in the press release, but printed electronics and its cousin additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) would seem to be obvious applications. Even more intriguingly the company talks about silicon-graphene for use in printed batteries that, if combined with printed solar could go into just about everything.
So while most nanomaterials tend to reach a dead end, the applications of graphene just keep on coming, and the material doesn’t even need to be perfect.