Sciency Words: Graphene

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific word to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s word is:


In Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama mentioned a “paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel.”  He was talking about American innovation or industry or something—who really cares?—but that super thin, super strong material he referenced was graphene, a recently discovered nanostructure that is only one atom thick.

In graphene, carbon atoms link together to form an endless web of two-dimensional hexagons.
In graphene, carbon atoms link together to form an endless web of hexagons.

You’re probably familiar with graphite, the material we use as pencil lead.  We now know that graphite is merely layer upon layer of graphene.  When these individual layers are separated, we have a unique, crystalline structure that is light and absurdly strong, with a wide variety of potential applications.  The discovery of graphene won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

To talk about graphene is to talk in absolutes.  It is the absolute thinnest material ever discovered.  Being only one atom thick, graphene is as close to a perfectly two-dimensional structure as anything in our universe is ever likely to be.  It is also the absolute strongest material, the lightest material, the most impermeable (meaning gas cannot diffuse through it at all), the best conductor of heat, and the best conductor of electricity known to modern science.

Making small quantities of graphene is easy.  You can do it with a #2 pencil and some sticky tape (in fact, these are the high-tech tools that were used to discover it in the first place!)  Producing graphene on an industrial scale, however, remains difficult and expensive, though the costs are already beginning to come down.

Soon, we’re going to start seeing more and more products on the market that are either coated in graphene or include graphene parts or, perhaps, are composed of 100% pure graphene.  This is likely to become one of the most basic materials in the world, like plastic or aluminum or glass.  We are going to live in a future made of graphene.

I’d say all that deserves some mention in the President’s State of the Union, but it’s worth noting that graphene was discovered in Britain, not the United States, by two physicists of Russian ancestry.  As far as I can tell, American innovation and industry had nothing to do with the discovery of graphene at all.

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