Gamechanging technologies don’t just happen overnight. There’s usually substantial time and money invested in basic research and development, a temporary lull as R&D moves into commercialization, and then an infusion of that technology in different product forms into existing infrastructure. That’s the likely trajectory for graphene. Recent news about graphene research and manufacturing breakthroughs suggest that we’ll have to rethink and restate assumptions and plans about future energy production and consumption. Graphene may be the best antidote to the myriad ills caused by carbon, as noted in this previous article.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice form. It is derived from graphite – the common material in pencils. But graphene has some uncommon properties. Consider these graphene characteristics:
- It is lighter than steel but is 200 times stronger
- It displays impressive flexibility when it is added with other materials to create composites
- It is an excellent conductor of electrons– making it a very efficient material for transporting electrons without building up waste heat
These qualities have a number of implications for energy consumption. A composite alloy that includes graphene could replace weightier materials now used for their strength. These new composites would reduce overall weight of vehicles and in turn reduce the energy requirements for their propulsion regardless of source from dirty fossil fuels or clean renewable sources of electricity. That would trigger a recalculation of energy requirements for ground transportation as well as the marine and aviation sectors as graphene-based alloys in new cars, ships, and planes replace existing fleets. Instead of small incremental improvements in miles per gallon, we could see sizable jumps in efficient use of energy.
Graphene’s conducting qualities have exciting potential to revolutionize electronics. It is a better conductor for electricity and heat than materials like copper. It could replace or enhance silicon for integrated circuits. For us non-physicists, think of graphene as almost frictionless in its ability to move electrons. That means it can speed up communications processes without a buildup of waste heat. Acceleration of communications processes also reduces energy requirements as equipment more efficiently completes tasks. That means wireless sensors could last longer or require less expensive batteries. IBM has been researching its possibilities and recently announced a breakthrough in an integrated circuit that supports common wireless communications functions such as signal amplification and filtering.
The number of patents filed for graphene innovations tripled in the past 10 years, which could signal that we’ll soon see commercial applications based on them. Albert Einstein said, ““Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions.” Here are some questions to stimulate your imaginations about how Smart Infrastructures (electrical and water grids, cities, transportation systems, etc.) and products will look in 20 years. What if we no longer had to cool critical electronics equipment because they didn’t build up waste heat? How would that change energy consumption projections? How would that change form factors and product designs? How would equipment that didn’t heat up change engineering assumptions for the Smart Grid? What if your vehicle efficiently harvested and stored sunlight to self-power itself?