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Is graphene a miracle material? (bbc.co.uk)
115 points by fun2have on May 21, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

Graphene and, more generally, carbon nanotubes are exciting because they have something-for-everyone. Silicon, plastics, water are examples of molecules or structures that have also been spun into important applications for just about every vertical. I suspect we'll seem carbon nanotube products explode over the next 20 years just as plastics did over the last 40.

The article focuses a bit on whether graphene can replace silicon, which I think kind of misses the point. The material will enable exciting new applications rather than merely transforming existing ones.

I'm also kinda bummed that this kind of research doesn't have a higher profile in the US. This is high-ass-tech and is probably an area in which our oil companies could play a very large role with their competencies at running large, highly complex, raw material production systems.

Reading this article brought to mind this scene in The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

So, I'm wondering how and where I should be investing to take advantage of this materials revolution. Seems like a pretty obvious bet to make, but it seems to be spread across many companies and with an indeterminate schedule (some say 5 years, some say 10, some say "we don't know"). And, more importantly, so many of the companies involved are too big for one product or even one line of products to make a huge dent in their bottom line. I've invested in IBM and Intel in the past based on research in the pipeline, and while the products did come to fruition and did prove to be good for the companies bottom line, the stock market didn't respond as much as one would hope (but probably about what I should have expected, had I really done the analysis of how it would effect their bottom line).

I'm not sure I follow you on the oil companies, though. Sure, they've been a major player in the plastics pipeline forever, but, if graphene isn't made from petroleum derivatives, I'm not sure it is a natural fit for oil companies. I would say the folks building LCD panels and other silicon-based products are the obvious candidates for some graphene products (and Samsung seems to be near the front of the pack in products based on graphene)...but maybe it'll be some other segment altogether (solar panel makers like Sharp and Kyocera, perhaps?).

Whatever happens, I want in, at least as an investor. So, I guess next time I review my portfolio (which currently contains GOOG and nothing else) I'm gonna do some more research on graphene. It's probably not a big rush to find the right companies...since it'll be a very long bet, anyway.

"So, I'm wondering how and where I should be investing to take advantage of this materials revolution."

Find out which schools are doing the most interesting research in this area, and then talk with the tech transfer people at each university. They should be more than happy to hook you up.

Actually, The Graduate was exactly what I was thinking as I was typing my comment. ;)

Edit: didn't reply to the bigger point about oil companies. I kinda threw that out there as a quick thought and agree with you that the semiconductor, semi-co materials, or LCD guys might be better positioned. That said, few companies are as good at gathering, refining, processing and shipping gigatons of carbon as the oil companies.

"That said, few companies are as good at gathering, refining, processing and shipping gigatons of carbon"

That's abstracting too far. The food industry ships around gigatons of carbon too, which is just as "graphenic" as oil, namely, zero. Pencil manufacturers actually use graphene, but it seems unlikely they're going to lead this drive either.

The bizarre part of the grandparent comment is that there is an industry devoted to the gathering, refining, processing and shipping of gigatons of graphite. It's called the coal industry.

I thought pencil manufacturers actually use graphite. From the article I understand that graphene pencil is only useful to write on steel sheets.

I had been led to believe by previous articles such as [1] that graphite contains graphene, albeit in small quantities and not in a useful state. The process of trying to produce a link to substantiate this has left me less sure whether it "contains" graphene, or if it merely can produce it under the circumstances described in the article. Given what it is and how much carbon gets around on this planet, it is perhaps hard to say what "contains" graphene in the first place, in much the same way I'm often a bit annoyed when someone counts every oxygen and two hydrogens anywhere in a compound as "water", regardless of how tied up they are.

[1]: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_702926...

We have more important high-tech ventures to fund over here, such as location-based social photo sharing services.

In all seriousness, though, I think we're at a point with graphene comparable to the earliest days of the integrated circuit. We can imagine faster and smaller adding machines, but we can't quite yet imagine an IBM PC running VisiCalc. And the iPhone isn't even science fiction yet.

> I'm also kinda bummed that this kind of research doesn't have a higher profile in the US.

Graphene gets a ton of attention, do not worry. It is one of the most competitive areas of materials science research. When my former gradschool groupmate did his proposal on it and all the experiments he wished to do for his PhD thesis (keep in mind he spent a year putting this proposal together) most of the experiments had already been done by the time his proposal was actually accepted. When I left the program, there was literally a "groundbreaking" paper per a week coming out in Science or Nature, and all the other publications were being flooded.

I have an encyclopedia from the 1950's at home with a page entitled "Asbestos - the new wonder material".

Wikipedia agrees with your implicit warning. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_nanotubes#Toxicity. What can those more knowledgeable say? It would be irresponsible and foolish to push on ahead, ignoring history, if the health concerns that have been raised are merited.

My reading is that the material is toxic only in certain configurations. More than less? In this case just as much research should be done to find optimal parameters rather than just rushing ahead with blind greed.

I was thinking similarly. Based on past history, I expect them to rush to find all sorts of short-term profitable applications for it, build new products around it, and not really look at things like negative health or environmental consequences. There just isn't as much money to be made by finding reasons not to use it as there is in finding reasons to use it.

well, it is basically graphite, just with more consistent microstructure. I'm having a hard time thinking of ways in which it could be worse than graphite in terms of health or environmental concerns.

Although it is not exactly proven, one can assume that asbestos' toxicity is related not to it's chemical properties but to physical geometry of particles of asbestos dust which seem similar to dust that you would get from carbon nanotubes. On the other hand, there is quite significant question whether this actually is problem (even in asbestos case) given right uses and technologies.

Graphene is a 2D material, like a sheet of paper. A carbon nanotube is more of a 1D material, like a pencil. Carbon nanotubes have (extremely) sharp points. A single wall carbon nanotube has a diameter of ±1.4nm. That is a lot smaller than the size of a cell. The danger of nanotubes in living organisms is that they can puncture cells. A graphene sheet cannot do that. That’s why nanotubes are potentially more harmful than graphene.

I could probably cite some examples of molecules where with a certain molecular structure/combination it's harmless, then you add just one more Hydrogen or Nitrogen, or whatever, and it becomes an acid.

Also consider water aka H2O. Have a sip of it and your mouth feels better. Have several cups and you're refreshed and body replenished for the day. Have 50 gallons go down your pipes and you are dead. Same molecule, phase, and microstructure. But water is extremely old and long studied and literally falling out of the sky for millions of years while humans on the planet. Not so, graphene.

Believe me, I think it's cool and sexy and do hope it enables all kinds of breakthroughs, I do. I'm just skeptical about whether it won't unleash horrible health problems down the road, due to incompetent and/or corrupt testing/approval bureaucracy, especially in the USA.

Optical computers, genetic catalogs, nanorepair modules--forget all of that. It's when you see a megaton of steel suspended over your head by a thread the thickness of a human hair that you really find God in technology.

* Anonymous Metagenics Dockworker - MorganLink 3DVision Live Interview

I'll be that other guy, because I found the visualization interesting. It's a bit off, but it'd still be mind-bending to see:

>... [the equivalent of] 6422 kg on a cable with cross-section of 1 mm2


I hate to be that guy but:

"megaton |ˈmegəˌtən|


a unit of explosive power chiefly used for nuclear weapons, equivalent to one million tons of TNT"

You're being that guy. Plus, you're wrong.

Mega- is a standard SI prefix, and the use of "megaton" to denote one million tons is entirely correct. Yes, it's also true that "megaton" has a second meaning. This fact does not invalidate its other meaning. In fact, if you bother looking this up in actual dictionaries, you'll find that the normal mass definition is often listed first, and the explosive definition is listed second, for what it's worth.

Wow, sorry man. Didn't mean to waste your time/bother you. I just looked it up in the dictionary I had handy, as the wording seemed strange to me.

In any case, I am glad I learned something new today!

It's also a quote from the computer game Alpha Centauri.

Wouldn't it be correctly called a "megatonne", as SI prefixes aren't typically applied to imperial units?

For some reason, people write megaton and mean a metric megaton. Megaton as a TNT-equivalent also refers to a metric tonne.

But (Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri) is an American game and it could actually refer to a non-metric megaton

I believe the world portrayed used metric, though. They at least talk about nano-meters and etc in their blurbs.

Yeah, a megaton means a megaton worth of TNT.

If IBM can make a 150 GHz graphene transistor, why does Dr Phaedon Avouris, of IBM, say that it cannot replace silicon? Isn't clock frequency a measure of the transistor's ability to turn on and off quickly?

There's so much more than clock frequency. The place silicon shines isn't so much it's material properties for producing individual switches - they're good, but there's better out there.

It's the raw manufacturability that silicon has. It's by far the easiest material to work with. It's abundant, cheap, and easy to obtain. It's got properties that lend it to easy junction doping and easy annealing. It's easy to deposit new layers on top of etched silicon. It's got a lattice that matches up nicely with the materials you'd want to use for contacts.

In short, the advantages of silicon aren't in it's ability to make transistors. It's in it's ability to make transistors while on a high volume assembly line.

It's going to be a while if we see whether graphene can match silicon for that.

Yup. It's always sobering to remember that there's already plenty of higher-performance materials than silicon- but silicon is so much cheaper to use, it simply outperforms everything else in performance-per-dollar by an incredible margin.

How much of the ease of using silicon is due to its inherent properties, and how much is due to the many billions that have been sunk into R&D?

I'm going to hazard that a lot is based on inherent properties. probably 'most' of the ease. They were mucking around with silicon computers with basically hobby chemistry sets back in the fifties and sixties, where today, with some of the best materials science we have, we're only able to manipulate graphene on the nanoscale..

It's not only important what it can do, but also if you can produce it in the way you want.

Only time will show if dense packed transistors on a chip can be build cheap and reliably.

Making integrated devices out of graphene is problematic for all the reasons the other responses have pointed off, but it might prove a workable alternative eventually - well after Moore's law has run out in silicon due to atomic size issues.

Hz isn't the only important parameter of a transistor; amplification factor (or what's it called) is another, and IIRC graphene transistor didn't really perform in this area.

Not to mention size. How big is this graphene transistor? How densely can you pack 'em? How much energy does it use? And so forth.

I've worked in the field of nanoscale electronic stuff, and I don't believe anything will replace silicon for a long time; at least not until we've completely run out of ways to do things better with silicon.

It's silicon that's the true miracle material -- it's versatile and cheap and amazingly easy to build stuff out of. We've been talking about replacing silicon for a while, but we keep coming back to it. It's all about silicon for the next couple of decades at least.

It's weird that this article mentions the problem of graphene lacking a semiconducting form and then fails to mention carbon nanotubes at all. I don't do research in this area, so I'm unaware, but it seems that much more work is currently being done with CNTs than graphene.

There is currently a 1 billion Euro proposal for a grant on graphene research in the EU. [1] But the decision will not be made before the end of 2012.


edit: Sorry, not to much new information here. They also mention it in the original submission.

I want clothing embedded with sheets of Graphene. Imagine the protection! I ride a motorcycle, which is one of the most dangerous daily activities one can do, and something that exhibits these properties could save me a lot of pain in wearing armored gear etc.

There are also a range of applications in the military and security industries.

Graphene wouldn't provide any shock absorption. For that, try looking at something like d3o:


OMG, how did I not know about this! D3o might be the coolest thing I've learnt about today, I totally want d3o riding gear now.

Isn't most of motorcycle safety designed to a) make sure no part of you catches the ground and b) spread out the energy as much as possible (spatially and temporally)? Cause I don't think just sheets of graphene would be very good at dealing with energy dissipation. You might not be able to break the graphene sheets, but the energy would just transfer through to your body.

I think GP might be thinking of a third major concern of motorcycle gear, which is abrasion resistance so that when you are sliding, the asphalt doesn't sandpaper your flesh to the bone (road rash). Pedestrian jeans/jackets disappear in less than 0.5 seconds when you are sliding on asphalt after a 60mph crash; most crashes at that speed have you tumbling on the ground for a good 6 seconds. That means unless you are wearing good gear, your skin is likely to be scraped off to the bone. I don't know much about graphene, but it might be a good material for abrasion resistance, if it is suited for withstanding tearing, cuts, and shear forces like the elephant-on-pencil example in the article claims.

If the sheet of graphene can't be pierced, it would protect from the most common mild injury in motorcycle accidents: road rash. (Right?) It'd prevent direct contact with the road, it'd prevent your clothing being ripped off and your skin being turned into ground meat.

Not that I really know what I'm talking about, but that was my line of thinking…

A sheet of graphene is one atomic layer thick. It's very easy to tear apart or pierce with any macroscopic object.

The article is talking about a 'sheet', in the colloquial sense of the word, of the thickness of a piece of cling wrap.

A "sheet" doesn't neccesarily refer to the molecular structure. In this contex, it would mean several layers composited together.

Several layers of graphene put together is graphite, and it's pretty non-magical.

Coincidentally, news out today of some impressive research results on using graphene in li-ion batteries: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2011/05/chang-20110521.html

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