8 potential uses of graphene – the ‘elusive’ wonder material

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For the uninitiated, graphene is actually an allotrope of carbon (just like diamond) – but it comes with two-dimensional, one-atom thick structure which is arranged like a lattice comprising of hexagons. Interestingly, the first intentional isolation of graphene in the lab was successfully achieved only in 2004. However, within a space of just 11 years, the component has been given the epithet of a ‘wonder material’ – and quite rightly so. Why? Because, simply put – graphene might just be the strongest material in the world, with its strength being 100 times more than steel (by weight). Moreover, graphene was found to have extraordinary conducting properties for both heat and electricity, while the material is almost transparent. In light of all these factors, it is good to know that the nascent graphene market in global terms had reached almost $9 million by 2014.

1) Bullet Proof Vests –

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Since we started off by labeling graphene as potentially strongest material that was ever tested, its first usage can very well relate directly to physical strength. In that regard, the researchers at the Rice University found out that graphene has the ability to perform twice as well as Kevlar when it came to dissipating the energy of a bullet. In addition, it was a whopping eleven-times as effective as steel, during the demonstration of the said test.

This entailed the use of micron-sized glass bullets that traveled with the velocity of 10,800 km per hr (6,700 mph), to smash against graphene sheets. The bullets’ respective speeds were achieved with a special lab-furnished laser setup/firing range. And quite intriguingly, the effectiveness of graphene was due to its ability to stretch backwards and reduce the kinetic energy of the bullets – like a trampoline effect.

2) Paint That Can Power Electronics –

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Back in 2013, scientists from the University of Manchester had concocted a potent composite of graphene and monolayers of transition metal dichalcogenides. The resultant material was found to be both thin and flexible, while having the capacity to generate electricity (from light absorption) at similar rates of conventional solar cells. In essence, the combination pertains to an advanced photovoltaic material; and as such could be used in external panels of buildings.

In other words, such structures could be powered by coatings of the aforementioned composite material, with the harnessed solar energy being pushed inside the building to juice up various appliances. The paint can also be used for smaller electronic devices like smartphones and tablets – which can lead to their self-sustaining power setups that are both svelte and flexible. More importantly, beyond concept, there is every chance that the research might be practical in the coming years, as reiterated by Dr Liam Britnell (the lead author of the project) –

It was impressive how quickly we passed from the idea of such photosensitive heterostructures to the working device. It worked practically from the very beginning and even the most unoptimized structures showed very respectable characteristics.

3) Soaking Up Radioactive Waste –

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A collaborative research made by the scientists at Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University, have led to the deduction that atom-thick flakes of graphene oxide can effectively discard radioactive elements from the affected water. This is because such tiny flakes of the substance can tack on to the water-borne radionuclides, and thus turn them into solids by condensation. These solidified clumps can then be easily removed from the water volume.

Such graphene oxide flakes can also be used for the removal of radionuclides from the fracking (hydraulic fracturing) fluids that come up to the surface during drilling operations for oils and gas recovery. To that end, the groundwater that conventionally comes from a drilled well is often radioactive (and heated), and thus can’t be pushed back into the ground. However, instead of sending the contaminated fluid to safe storage facilities – a scope which is pretty cost intensive, the graphene oxide method can be applied on-site to reduce the level of radioactivity.

4) Plastic With High Thermal Conductivity –

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Researchers from University of California and University of Manchester (where graphene was first effectively isolated in 2004) have utilized graphene flakes to create ultra-thin layer of films (of few microns width) that were then added onto a PET (plastic polyethylene terephthalate) substrate. PET, as we all know, is a common form of plastic used for bottles. In this case however, the resultant procedure boosted the composite plastic’s thermal conductivity by a whopping 600 times.

According to the scientists involved in the experiment, this made the thermal conductivity of PET comparable to that of metals like iron and lead. And, complemented by PET’s intrinsic qualities like pliability and durability, the graphene-enhanced composite plastic can become a prime candidate for mass-scale usage in technologies like solid-state lighting and electronic chips.

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