By Akshay Asija
Carbon is an extremely useful element. Its uniquely stable nuclear structure allows for the element to appear naturally as different isotopes, which enables carbon to arrange itself into many different forms of allotropes, such as graphite, charcoal or diamond. This is possible because the structure of carbon atoms enables them to bond together in many different ways. This, apart from the sheer abundance of carbon in the universe, makes it a uniquely useful element, and one that is fundamental to all life.
The material of the future
Of all the allotropes of carbon, graphene is potentially the most useful, especially when it comes to new inventions. Prior to graphene’s formal discovery by scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2004, the substance had existed on paper as a theoretical concept. In fact, small amounts of graphene had been unintentionally produced for centuries, mainly through the use of graphite. It was only after sufficient technological development had been made that graphene could be synthesised and isolated in significant quantities. Finally, in 2010, six years after they had discovered, isolated, and characterised graphene, Geim and Novoselov won a Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.”
Structurally, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms densely packed together into a honeycomb (hexagonal) shaped crystal lattice. Many allotropes of carbon, such as charcoal, graphite, buckytubes, and fullerenes, consist of layers of graphene arranged together in different fashions. Graphite is essentially millions of layers of graphene stacked one over the other.
Despite being just a single atom thick, a layer of graphene is exceptionally strong. In fact, it is the strongest material ever tested. It is a good conductor of heat and electricity. Graphene is also diamagnetic, which means that it is repelled by common magnetic fields, albeit not in a linear manner. Consequently, graphene can be levitated by the use of neodymium magnets. Graphite, being composed of graphene, also exhibits these properties, although to a much lesser extent.
Graphene’s latest application
The University of Manchester has been instrumental in graphene research. It was here that Geim and Novoselov first isolated the material and, since then, the university has contributed significantly to its application for various practical purposes. The most recent of these projects come in the form of a partnership between the university’s National Graphene Institute and the British sportswear brand INOV-8. The company has become the first to incorporate graphene into its new range of running and fitness shoes, which are due to be released in 2018. The researchers worked with the company’s R&D team to develop a new, special kind of rubber that utilises graphene. This process involved heating up the rubber and then adding microscopic graphene particles to it, along with other preservatives and colours. The materials were thoroughly mixed until the graphene was equally spread throughout the mixture.
Owing to the extreme tensile strength of graphene, this new rubber, which is being used in the outsoles of company’s upcoming G-Series shoes, does not wear out as quickly as conventional rubber. Thus, the G-Series shoes will provide a greater grip, even in non-ideal conditions, such as on the wet or rocky ground. The flexible and lightweight nature of graphene also means that the shoes will deliver a “combination of traction, stretch and durability never seen before in sports footwear.” According to Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan, reader in nanomaterials at The University of Manchester, the outsoles of the G-Series shoes have about 1.5 times the strength, stretchiness and resistance to wear of standard rubber. He also feels that stronger surgical gloves and other protective equipment and sports gear could be made if produced through this method.
The G-Series shoes will be priced at about £150 and, according to INOV-8’s CEO, will set off a graphene revolution. These shoes will certainly join the ranks of other recent, innovative footwear, such as the 3D printed sneakers by Adidas and Nike’s ‘Back to the Future’ inspired self-lacing sneakers.
Other applications of graphene
The wonder material’s many unique properties make it an ideal fit for several industries. Graphene is completely transparent and is an efficient conductor of heat and electricity. This means that graphene is a great candidate for a whole new generation of electronics. Augmented reality glasses that use graphene lenses on the visor are another possible application of graphene’s ability to conduct electricity eliminates the need for specialised display circuitry on such devices. Graphene might also be used to realise the science fiction concept of visual displays embedded in glass windows and doors.
The Manchester recently demonstrated the first graphene-based e-textiles—apparels with integrated electronic circuitry—produced with inkjet printers. This technique enables the printing of flexible and comfortable graphene sensors into garments. These sensors can measure the wearer’s heart rate along with temperature, physical activity and sleeping patterns in real time. Such technology may have potential uses in medicine and defence. Graphene also makes possible the printing of flexible energy storage devices directly onto textiles without any requirement for bulky battery packs.
Another interesting but useful application of graphene is the production of mechanically enhanced silk. Late in 2016, a team of researchers from Tsinghua University in China fed some larval silkworms mulberry leaves coated in a solution that was 0.2% graphene. The silk collected from these worms was twice as strong and could cope with much higher levels of stress before degrading, thus paving the way for an entirely new category of enhanced garment fabrics.
The utility of graphene has already increased substantially and, looking at the current pace of development, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. New projects that enhance the efficacy of existing technologies with graphenes, such as graphene-enhanced sports cars, medical devices and aeroplanes, are being designed by large numbers of scientists and engineers. All these advances are paving the way for an age of graphene.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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