Wafer-thin, stretchy and strong as steel: could ‘miracle’ material graphene finally transform our world?

Twenty years ago, ­scientists announced they had created a new miracle material that was going to transform our lives. They called it graphene.

Consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexa­gonal pattern, it is one of the strongest materials ever made and, for good measure, it is a better conductor of electricity and heat than copper.

The prospects for revolutionising technology seemed endless and a new generation of ultra-fast processors and computers was predicted. Reports said it could allow batteries to charge five times faster, and make concrete 35% stronger.

It was even put forward as the solution to potholes; just mix it with traditional surfacing material and the curse of modern driving would be eradicated, it was claimed.

Manchester University professors Andre Geim (left) and Konstantin Novoselov discovered graphene. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

The Manchester University scientists who discovered it, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 2010 and a National Graphene Institute was established at the university.

But the hype over this miracle material has waned significantly. Graphene has yet to trigger an electronics revolution; potholes are still with us.

So what happened to the graphene revolution? Why has it not transformed our world? Sir Colin Humphreys, professor of materials science at Queen Mary University of London, has a straightforward answer: “Graphene is still a very promising material. The problem has been scaling up its production. That is why it has not made the impact that was predicted.”

Graphene was originally made in a rather unusual manner, Humphreys explained. Geim and Novoselov ­created it by putting sticky tape on lumps of graphite and peeled away the layers until they got one that was the thickness of an atom.

“But it would be just a tiny flake, a few millimetres across,” he added. “You cannot make electronic devices with scraps like that. For functioning devices, you have to have at least 6in wafers of material. So IBM, Samsung, and Intel between them spent billions trying to scale up graphene production to produce it in useful forms and quantities – with little success.”

As a result, the graphene revolution was put on hold, although recently there have been encouraging signs that the technology may soon regain much of its original promise.

Humphreys believes the market could soon be re-energised thanks to breakthroughs in the manufacture of graphene-based devices. A key development in this drive has been made by Humphreys and his colleagues, who realised the technology used to make gallium nitride electronic components could be exploited to make graphene on a large scale.

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Andy Murray with a graphene tennis racket. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

“We used some of the first graphene we manufactured this way to make a sensor which can detect magnetic fields,” said Humphreys, who has since set up a spin-off company, Paragraf, with his team.

Based in the Cambridgeshire village of Somersham, it has now become one of the first companies in the world to mass-produce graphene-based devices. Two reactors – shaped like pizza ovens – are now producing enough graphene to make 150,000 devices a day.

These are being used by Paragraf in two ways: first, to make sensors that measure magnetic fields. These can be used to detect malfunctioning batteries in e-bikes and e-scooters, preventing fires.

The second type of sensor can differentiate between bacterial and viral infections, showing whether antibiotics would be an appropriate treatment. “We also believe we could use our biosensors to detect whether or not someone has sepsis, in a few minutes,” said Humphreys.

The fact that graphene devices are likely to consume less energy than current devices is also important, he added.

“The silicon age is coming to an end. We have reached the limit to the number of transistors that we can cram on a single chip while the energy they consume is doubling every three years.

“And that means if nothing happens, and we continue as we are doing, silicon devices will consume all the world’s generation of electricity – which is a huge threat to our net zero aspirations.

“Graphene technology may have arrived later than we had originally hoped but it has the potential to get around these problems and make a real difference to modern life.”

Graphene ‘has the potential to make a real difference to modern life’, says professor of materials science Sir Colin Humphreys. Photograph: AddMeshCube/Alamy

Hyped science that failed to make the grade

  • Nuclear power “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter” – Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

  • The Sinclair C5 “This is the future of transport” –promotion material for the Sinclair C5 electric scooter/car in 1985. First year sales of 100,000 were predicted but only 5,000 were sold. The project was abandoned.

  • Medical advances “It is time to close the book on infectious diseases, and declare the war against pestilence won” – attributed to Dr William H Stewart, the US surgeon general 1965-1969.


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