This week, the University of Manchester unveiled a graphene sieve that can turn sea water into drinking water.
The implications are tremendous. Not just for the potentially life-saving devices that could result, but for the material responsible for this breakthrough - graphene.
What is graphene?
Graphene is a form of the element carbon that is just a single atom thick. It is extracted from regular graphite (which is basically pencil lead) using a simple method where atom-thick layers are lifted off graphite using a special form of sticky tape.
These layers are graphene, which is the world’s first 2D material with a range of exceptional properties. It is incredibly lightweight, flexible, stretchable, fire resistant, a brilliant electrical conductor and very tough - at about 200 times as strong as steel. It is also about a million times thinner than a human hair and is a low cost alternative to other competing commercial materials. This sheer range of killer properties in one material has piqued the interest of a wide range of industrial sectors.
But, while graphene has captured imaginations, it has struggled to capture the financial purse strings of many big businesses. As such, the supply chain is still embryonic and graphene remains the darling of the world's startups and research houses - and not of the world's leading corporations as commercial production struggles to gather pace.
So, could this latest breakthrough finally give graphene the momentum it needs to reach commercial maturity? If it does, a range of fascinating products could be developed in a range of industries.
This is because graphene has a high conductivity - which makes it perfect for a range of applications, particularly when coupled with its other physical properties.
Graphene has been touted as a potential silicon replacement thanks to its low cost and resilient features. IBM also created a graphene chip in 2014 that was 10,000 times faster than standard silicon-based chips.
Graphene is optically transparent and electrically conductive, making it a good candidate for future touchscreens, LCDs and LEDs. It's also flexible so "roll-up laptops" and other flexible displays could be a possibility.
Graphene inks could print conductive patterns to unlock high-speed and low-cost printing techniques for electronic circuits. Commercial applications include disposable sensors, RFID tags and intelligent packaging and there have been interesting developments in this area.
Bioelectric sensory devices could be a natural successor to the graphene sieve. Thanks to the large surface area, high electrical conductivity, thinness and strength of graphene, this could allow for the fast and efficient monitoring of entities such as haemoglobin or glucose levels, as well as toxin detection.
One suggestion takes this concept one step further - it is the development of a "toxic" form of graphene to target and destroy cancer cells or even promote tissue regeneration.
Nuclear decontamination and bomb detection
Nuclear decontamination is one other application that could exploit graphene's ability to filter different atomic isotopes of radioactive hydrogen from ordinary hydrogen, which could clean up nuclear waste.
Graphene foam could also outperform leading gas sensors to detect potentially dangerous chemicals and aid bomb detection.
These are just a handful of possible uses that could hit the mainstream if the graphene sieve helps researchers enter the commercial world to gain investment for and interest into this novel and highly versatile material.
You can find out more about graphene and its practical applications here:
Hello. I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology
And I explain science with Lego in Sunday Science.
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