Europe joins global race over ‘miracle material’

Unbreakable: graphene’s molecular structure makes it atom-thin but super-tough © Human Media Lab

Light, flexible and super-strong, graphene is set to revolutionise areas as diverse as medicine, electronics and sport. But can it really start a new industrial revolution?

What is so special about a serve from Novak Djokovic, the tennis world number one? Clearly he is at peak fitness, with talent to spare and years of intensive training. But he now has another weapon in his armoury: a racquet partly made of graphene.

Discovered in 2004 by two scientists at Manchester University, who were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, graphene is a material made from carbon just one atom thick. Scientists claim it is the thinnest, strongest, most flexible stuff ever discovered, and the substance best able to conduct both heat and electricity. It is also light and transparent.

‘Graphene is a technology that could revolutionise the world,’ said the European Union this week, as it announced a giveaway of €1 billion for research projects to investigate its uses. Men and women working in biotechnology, medicine, consumer electronics, and all types of manufacturing are waiting with excitement to see what this wonderful material could do.

Graphene could make computer processors faster and aeroplane wings stronger; mobile devices like tablets and phones could fold away in thin flexible sheets, and graphene-laced clothes might spontaneously mend themselves when torn; new medical equipment could boost surgery and the fight against disease.

One of the Nobel laureates who discovered graphene, Sir Andre Geim, has warned that it can take about 40 years to get a discovery from laboratory to ‘real world’ applications.

But the process has already begun: since the material was discovered in Manchester nine years ago, Asia and the US have overtaken EU nations in the race to register international patents for graphene manufacture and research. So far Samsung leads the field with nine patents.

The EU is pouring money into graphene research in an effort to make up the lost ground in what many predict will be a ‘new industrial revolution‘.

Bend it like graphene

This discovery is undoubtedly sensational. But is it really right, purists might say, to pour so much research funding into a race for profit and technological supremacy? It is understandable for countries to want the jobs and wealth that a new technology brings. But by focusing on patents and products rather than fresh ideas, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture and missing out on a more significant breakthrough.

‘Nonsense,’ say others. Some scientists must explore where their curiosity leads them, but once a great discovery has been made, we owe it to the rest of humanity to swiftly find the most practical uses for it. Graphene could do more than produce high-performance tennis racquets: it may well mean new ways to save lives.

You Decide

  1. Which potential use for graphene is the most exciting?
  2. Should governments and regional bodies like the EU fund scientific and business research, or leave that to private enterprise?

Activities

  1. Graphene is a type of carbon. Do some research on other types of carbon and make a table comparing its various forms.
  2. Research how laboratories and companies make graphene, and its potential uses, then make an illustrated presentation.

Some People Say...

“Scientists live in a different world from the rest of us.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t get why the EU cares about this.
Companies, national governments and regional bodies like the EU are determined to secure a slice of the future riches that will flow from finding the most useful – and the most exciting – inventions based on this so-called ‘miracle material.’
And why does it matter to me?
Computers and mobile devices you use in the future could be very different – as well as a lot of the other products you use. But you might also benefit from the medical advances that graphene could bring, or share in the employment and prosperity brought to your part of the world by graphene-based industries. Or maybe you play tennis!

Word Watch

Carbon
Carbon (symbol C, atomic number 6) is the fourth most common element in the universe. Although all carbon molecules are identical at an atomic level, they can bond into various different structures, each with unique properties. Other forms of carbon include graphite, diamond and buckminsterfullerene.
Medical equipment
One recent project created a ‘single-molecule microscope’ which could be used to investigate the body’s workings in painstaking detail. Other graphene-based equipment currently under development may soon be able to reproduce damaged tissue, administer drugs more effectively and provide artificial body parts.
Industrial revolution
The first industrial revolution began in the second half of the 18th Century, when manual methods of production began to be replaced by factories with sophisticated machinery. Interestingly, this revolution was fuelled by another carbon-based material: coal. The second industrial revolution was characterised by the development of production lines. A third, actively promoted by the EU, may come from new sources of renewable energy as well as new materials like graphene.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.