Graphene Uses Keep on Coming

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to two British scientists for their work experimenting with graphene. This month has seen two separate announcements about how the material could be in electronic devices.

Graphene is simply a single layer of carbon atoms: as the Nobel citation explained, it’s literally a two-dimensional material. Manchester University professors Kostya Novoselov and Andre Geim discovered the material by using sticky tape to gradually peel away carbon layers from a piece of pencil lead.

What makes graphene so interesting is that it is arranged with the carbon atoms in a hexagon chain, a little like honeycomb or chicken wire. That arrangement makes the material particularly strong, despite being so thin that a pile of three million layers would only be a millimeter thick.

Novoselev has now made further comments about the pair’s research into the conductivity of graphene. He says tests show electrons can travel much faster through graphene than through silicon. That could mean the material makes for faster-running computer chips, suitable for devices such as computers and mobile phones.

Meanwhile researchers in the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in New York have found that passing water over a graphene surface generates a tiny amount of electricity. While it’s not enough power to drive consumer devices, it is enough to power sensors used for discovering oil or gas, with the sensors placed into water that was flowed through cracks in the ground. As an added benefit, graphene is inherently flexible as well as strong, making it simpler to wrap around sensors.

The research showed it was possible to generate 85nW of power from a 0.03mm x 0.015mm sheet of graphene. From my rough calculations, and bearing in mind there’s a ridiculous margin for error when scaling up to this degree, this is roughly equivalent to getting 19 watts from a square meter of surface.

The Rensselear team believe that it’s possible the technology could eventually be used to get some power from the underside of a boat. Perhaps more practically, the figures may work out to allow a self-powered microsubmarine.

(Picture credit: AlexanderAlUS under Creative Commons license)