I came across a new word the other day: graphene.  Since the word was completely new to me, and was portrayed as a game changer, I thought I should investigate.

My “go to” source is Wikipedia (isn’t it everyone’s now?).  Wikipedia says that graphene is an allotrope of carbon, and after digging further (i.e., what does allotrope mean?) I found that Wikipedia also says:

“For example, the allotropes of carbon include diamond (where the carbon atoms are bonded together in a tetrahedral lattice arrangement), graphite (where the carbon atoms are bonded together in sheets of a hexagonal lattice), graphene (single sheets of graphite), and fullerenes (where the carbon atoms are bonded together in spherical, tubular, or ellipsoidal formations).”

I was impressed how long the Wikipedia article was and that it had 219 formal references.  There must be something of significance going on here.

A few points I noted from the Wikipedia description:

  • graphene is a 2-dimensional crystal – it is basically a layer of graphite that is one atom thick;
  • high-quality graphene is strong, light, nearly transparent and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity;
  • its interactions with other materials and with light, and its inherently two-dimensional nature, produce unique properties;
  • as of 2009, graphene appeared to be one of the strongest materials known with a breaking strength over 100 times greater than a hypothetical steel film of the same (thin) thickness; and
  • the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 was won “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

The Wikipedia article highlights a number of potential applications for graphene including lightweight, thin, flexible, yet durable display screens, electric circuits, and solar cells, as well as various medical, chemical and industrial processes enhanced or enabled by the use of new graphene materials.

Milestones in graphene history include:

In 2008, the smallest transistor so far, one atom thick, 10 atoms wide was made of graphene.  In June 2011, IBM researchers announced that they had succeeded in creating the first graphene-based integrated circuit, a broadband radio mixer.

In November 2011, researchers used 3D printing to fabricate graphene devices.

In 2013 researchers reported the creation of transistors printed on flexible plastic that work after being soaked in water, and are flexible enough to be folded.

Here are some extracts from comments made by Andre Geim who was part of the Nobel Award winning team:

  • thinnest material you can get (one atom thick);
  • tiny amount covers a huge area (one gram covers a whole football field);
  • strongest material because you can’t slice it any further;
  • stronger than diamond;
  • extraordinary heat conductance;
  • conducts electricity a thousand times better than copper;
  • you can just about see it with the naked eye, even though it’s only one atom thick.
  • Governments around the world and probably more than 100 companies are spending billions on researching these materials

Here’s another quote from the University of Manchester, in the section on composite materials from their Future Applications page:

“Graphene is one of the strongest and stiffest known materials and is also very light weight. These properties mean that graphene can be mixed with plastics such as epoxy to make composites which have good specific physical properties (i.e. strength per unit mass). Such graphene-plastic composites could be used to replace metals in the manufacture of aircraft and cars, making them lighter and more fuel efficient. Graphene is also electrically conductive which means it can be added to plastics to make them conductive as well. Conductive plastics are needed to protect carbon fibre aircraft wings against lightning strikes and prevent sparks from static electricity in the fuel lines and tanks of vehicles.”

So, what’s happening with graphene here in Canada?  Quite a bit as it turns out.

One article asks if Canada will become a graphene superpower because of our natural resources.  Apparently there are large, undeveloped deposits of a high-quality form of graphite in Ontario and Quebec that could be tapped to make graphene.  The Wall Street Journal even calls it a wonder material and suggests it is igniting a scientific gold rush!

An Ottawa company, Graphoid Inc., announced in September, 2013  the formation of Calevia Inc., a joint venture partnership with ProScan RX Pharma Inc. to develop an entirely new graphene-based nanotechnology platform for the precise targeting and thermal eradication of solid cancer tumors.  If it proves viable, that by itself would make graphene an amazing success.

Other Canadian companies in the graphene business include Ontario Graphite and Graphene Leaders Canada.

All in all, it seems like a major opportunity for Canada to combine its ready access to natural resources with advanced R&D to bring a wide range of innovative products to market.

Let’s see how the world will be changed by our Canadian graphene innovations over the next five years.

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