Solar Energy’s Future is Sunny With Graphene

Solar Energy’s Future is Sunny With Graphene

The Energizer Bunny had its fifteen minutes of fame in the 1990’s. Today, battery power is extending beyond gadgets, electronic devices, or cars. Typical batteries are becoming obsolete. Newer and more efficient forms of energy storage are taking the spotlight. Demands are high for cheaper, longer-lasting, and quicker-charging forms of power. Energy storage is advancing to new horizons as demands for environmentally friendly forms make way for new innovations.

One of these innovations is solar power. Sunlight is creating environmentally friendly, cost-efficient, and long-lasting energy in the places we reside. Holding massive amounts of energy in solar panels has been a challenge. Lithium-ion batteries have a high density but unfortunately cannot store energy in large enough quantities to power a building or house. What is the solution?

Enter graphene, a two-dimensional carbon material with extreme strength, transparency, and flexibility. Since its discovery in the early 2000’s, graphene has been improving battery performance in several ways. The material is simultaneously lightweight and strong, making it easy to handle. Its short charge time ultimately extends the battery’s life. It requires less carbon than conventional batteries, making it more cost-efficient. Studies show that graphene could double the amount of energy generated by a solar panel. In addition to conducting electrical energy, graphene can store it. That makes it one of the most desirable materials to hit the market. Graphine’s high storage capacity makes it more effective and also safer than Lithium-ion batteries.

As graphene reaches the solar energy industry, its effect is sure to be life-changing. Silicon is currently the material of choice in solar panels, but studies on graphene are showing its higher performing potential. When sunlight hits silicon, it releases a single electron. Graphene, by contrast, would release many more electrons, making it a very desired addition for solar energy. When will graphene be the obvious choice for solar panel energy storage? In time.

With graphene’s immense possibility comes certain challenges. Research on graphene is still in its infant stages. Its newness to the market makes it quite expensive to produce. Depositing graphene electrodes onto a solar cell involves complicated manipulation to its chemistry process. Graphene’s carbon atoms are arranged in a honeycomb pattern, making it flexible, lightweight, and stronger than steel. Converting light into electricity takes it only a femto-second (10−15 second), which is too fast to study easily.

Graphene is already changing the battery industry in other ways. Chinese company Dongxu Optoelectronics has used it in a laptop battery that charges in a few minutes rather than a few hours.  Barcelona-based startup Earthdas has used it for batteries in that charge electric bicycles and motorcycles 12 times faster than a normal Lithium-ion battery. Mass production will require much more research on its properties and how to make them most effective for solar panels. Graphene’s importance is undeniable, but further research is required to determine its full capabilities. Until then, the future is bright with this much-needed material, albeit without the cute bunny ears.

Graphene Skin for Prosthetics Powered By The Sun

Graphene Skin for Prosthetics Powered By The Sun

Wonder material graphene has proven far more than its weight in gold when it comes to technological innovation, and it appears the possibilities keep on growing. As one particularly promising example, the material was recently used to create solar-powered skin that would allow amputees using prosthetics to regain the sense of touch.

The development comes thanks to engineers from the University of Glasgow, who had previously developed ‘electronic skin’ that covers graphene-based prosthetics. The engineers were able to harness some of the material’s incredible properties to use the sun’s energy to power skin.

Among graphene’s other properties—flexibility, super-strength, and conductibility to name a few—the material has an optical transparency, allowing 98% of the light that strikes it to pass through its surface. This property makes graphene ideal for gathering energy from the sun to harness power.

The innovation was detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Advanced Functional Materials, describing how Dr. Dahiya and his colleagues at Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) succeeded in integrating power-generating photovoltaic cells into the electronic skin capable of touch sensitivity.

According to Dr. Dahiya, the steps they have made could lead to prosthetics capable of performing difficult tasks like gripping soft materials, and have utilized 3D printing to make said prosthetics more affordable. By forming an active student organization called “Helping Hands,” he hopes to develop lower-cost tactile skin that allows amputees to regain lost sensory feeling.

Touch sensitive-skin is not only useful for amputees, but robots that can make decisions about human safety by developing the ability to sense physical dangers in a work environment, like construction.

The next step for graphene skin? Perfecting the energy-generation capability. Right now, the electronic skin requires 20 nanowatts per square centimeter, a fairly easy requirement to meet. The team is looking into ways to store energy in batteries, with the goal being to develop an entirely energy-autonomous prosthetic limb.

Such an innovation could make a world of difference in healthcare. As the team recently received funding from the Scottish Funding Council, here’s to hoping we see this technology shine sooner rather than later.

Graphene-Coated Solar Panels Convert Rain Into Energy

Graphene-Coated Solar Panels Convert Rain Into Energy

From 2010-15, the cost of installing solar panels, for both large-scale utilities as well as residential properties, dropped by over 50%. Further, solar generation prices fell in tandem with this trend, to as little as 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, leading experts to predict that, by 2025, solar may well be cheaper than coal.

But for all its advantages (and they are many), solar panels have one major weakness: they are less efficient during cloudy or rainy days. In cities like Seattle or London, which are often blanketed by clouds or rain, this means decreased efficiency, and perhaps, a higher operating cost.

No longer. Chinese scientists in the northeastern city of Qingdao have developed a special solar panel coated in a single sheet of graphene. First discovered in the British city of Manchester, graphene is an impossibly thin layer of carbon that is one atom thick–and has already been used in a number of applications.

At the heart of this rainproof solar technology is a clever hack that relies heavily on chemical knowledge: because rainwater isn’t pure (it contains calcium, sodium, and ammonium, among other compounds), it reacts with graphene, rotating electrons and generating a small voltage. This charge can then be captured by capacitators and turned into electricity.

Still, as groundbreaking as this technology is, it’s not perfect. These graphene-coated solar panels can only convert about 6.5% of the rain they receive into energy, whereas today’s solar panels can convert up to 22.5% of sunlight into electricity. More importantly, these panels aren’t producing enough electricity: the small electric charges generated by raindrops are tiny microvolts, far below what’s needed to power a single appliance, let alone a home.

Clearly, there’s still a long way to go. But if anything, coating solar panels in thin sheets of graphene may one day push them to become the powerful, all-weather energy source that our planet so desperately needs.

New Graphene Foam Supports 3,000 Times Its Own Weight

New Graphene Foam Supports 3,000 Times Its Own Weight

When you consider “foam,” it’s usually not for its incredible strength. But when graphene is involved, all the rules change. That’s certainly true of a newly developed graphene foam, developed at Rice University’s Department of Chemistry, anyway.

For those unaware, graphene is an allotrope of carbon that, at one-atom thick and weighing just .77 mg, is 100 – 300 stronger than steel. It’s an incredibly strong, lightweight, durable and conductive material that may have huge implications for consumer electronics.

At Rice University, chemists created a highly-conductive chunk of graphene foam called “rebar graphene.” According to chemist James Tour, “We developed graphene foam, but it wasn’t tough enough for the kind of applications we had in mind, so using carbon nanotubes to reinforce it was a natural next step.”

With carbon nanotubes as reinforcement, the researchers’ graphene foam could support 3,000 times its own weight, as opposed to just 150 without the nanotubes.

How was the foam created? Powdered nickel catalyst, surfactant-wrapped multiwall nanotubes, and sugar as a carbon source were combined to create 3D structures. The nanotubes then began to unzip and bond with the graphene, lending it extra strength.

When the materials mixed and water evaporated, the resulting pellets were “pressed into a steel die and then heated in a chemical vapor deposition furnace, which turned the available carbon into graphene.” After being processed again to move remnants of nickel, it came out in a screw-shape. According to Tour, the method can be scaled up simply.

You might wonder what the purpose of superstrong graphene foam is, and it’s a great question. The researchers’ foam was tested as an electrode in lithium-ion capacitors, and was determined to be mechanically and chemically stable. Larger-scale foam could be molded into any shape and used to create flexible batteries, act as a supportive material, or be used to sense chemicals in potentially toxic environments.

Graphene Watch is World’s Lightest Mechanical Timepiece

Graphene Watch is World’s Lightest Mechanical Timepiece

Want to have a fly timepiece on your wrist without feeling weighed down? This could be a distinct possibility soon thanks to a recent graphene-related innovation. Though seemingly inconsequential, the implications for style, comfort, and function are extraordinary.

This January, the world’s lightest mechanical watch was unveiled in Geneva, Switzerland, the result of a unique collaboration between the University of Manchester, watchmaking brand Richard Mille, and racing team McLaren F1. At just 40 grams, the watch owes its lightness to its graphene composite called. The watch also has a graphene-injected rubber strap, making it extra resilient.

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Why graphene? If you read my blog, you know that the one-atom-thick “wonder material” is extremely durable, flexible, and conductive, making it ideal for wearable technology and the future of fashion. It was first isolated in 2004 by Nobel-winning scientists at University of Manchester, which explains the institution’s role in this collaboration and other projects involving the material.

The watch was, in part, inspired by the wishbone structure of the McLaren-Honda F1 racing car. McLaren has been pioneering techniques involving carbon to combine lightness and durability since the 1980s.

According to James Baker, Graphene Business Director at the University of Manchester, “The results from this project have shown exactly why graphene is perfect for delivering improvements where high-performance materials are necessary and is a key step forward into developing more widespread applications including automotive and aerospace.”

It’s safe to say that this super lightweight watch carries a lot more weight metaphorically—for science and for the future—than it does physically. Since this innovation tells more than just time, I guarantee this is just the beginning.  

Welcome to the Low-Cost Future: Graphene and Silly Putty

Welcome to the Low-Cost Future: Graphene and Silly Putty

Gunpowder was accidentally invented by a Taoist seeking an immortality elixir. Charles Goodyear accidentally spilled rubber on a stove–only to discover that heating it (vulcanization) made it more durable, weatherproof, and an all-around better product.

In our increasingly advanced world, it’s easy to forget that alchemists and scientists once discovered products through wild experimentation. But for centuries, that’s precisely how science worked–something that researchers at one Irish college rediscovered recently.

When scientists at Dublin’s Trinity College mixed carbon-based graphene with silicone-based Silly Putty (itself an accidental invention), they were surprised to discover that the result was not only stiffer, but also an extremely sensitive material that excelled as a sensor.

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Professor Jonathan Coleman and his son, OIsin. Source: Trinity College Dublin

The resulting polymer, labelled G-Putty by scientists, is an interesting hybrid of characteristics: it has the flexibility and movement of Silly Putty, but with the sensitivity of graphene. After creating G-Putty, Trinity’s scientists ran an electric current through strings of G-Putty and measured any interruptions in the flow of electrical resistance.

The result? G-Putty’s graphene component made it 5000 times more sensitive than other sensor materials, rendering it the perfect material for detecting tiny, subtle changes. In fact, according to Jonathan Coleman, the leader of the research group responsible for creating G-Putty, “Even if you stretch or compress the Silly Putty [and graphene mixture] by one percent of its normal size, the electrical resistance will change by a factor of five.”

To summarize: even the slightest change, such as a baby’s heartbeat or a spider’s steps, would alter the electrical flow through G-Putty significantly. In fact, by pressing a tiny bit of graphene against your carotid artery (located at the intersection of your neck and jawbone), you can measure both your pulse and your blood pressure.

The applications for G-Putty are quite expansive. Given its ridiculously low cost, G-Putty can be the perfect, cheap sensor, used in anything from hospital emergency rooms to health trackers–really anything that requires the tracking of small, subtle changes.

In an era of escalating healthcare costs and rising consumer discontent, innovations like G-Putty sensors can well mean the difference between angry patients abandoning their healthcare providers and hospital profits.

Big Explosion Creates Graphene in Large Quantities

Big Explosion Creates Graphene in Large Quantities

Most scientists try to avoid and prevent accidental explosions from occurring in the lab. Unintended explosions can be dangerous and wasteful. Not to mention–they’re rarely productive.

This explosion was an exception.

With a bit of serendipity, physicists at Kansas State University recently discovered a promising new technique to produce graphene on a commercial scale. The KSU team “was working on creating carbon soot aerosol gels with combustion,” Ryan Witwam explains. The researchers’ experiment produced a clumpy black gel, and “upon closer inspection of the material [they produced], they realized it wasn’t just any carbon in the gel.” Without intending to, the team had synthesized graphene.

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Cortelyou-Rust University Distinguished Professor of Physics Chris Sorensen is the lead inventor of the recently-issued patent, Process for high-yield production of graphene via detonation of carbon-containing material. Other Kansas State University researchers involved include Arjun Nepal, postdoctoral researcher and instructor of physics, and Gajendra Prasad Singh, KSU visiting scientist. (Photo courtesy of k-state media)

Since its discovery in 2004, graphene has been hailed as the wonder material of the future. At just one carbon atom thick, graphene’s unique physical structure and electrical properties confer the material with a range of valuable applications in tech and medicine.

Until now, the high cost and intensive labor required to produce graphene in large quantities has impeded the material’s commercialization. The material is notoriously difficult and expensive to synthesize. In light of this explosive event, graphene’s potential might be realized just yet.

How a Temporary Tattoo Uses Graphene to Measure Vital Signs

How a Temporary Tattoo Uses Graphene to Measure Vital Signs

Measuring electrical signals from the heart, muscles and brain has never been so inconspicuous.

Researchers at the University of Austin are developing a graphene health sensor that adheres to the skin like a temporary tattoo. Only an atom thick, the devices are the thinnest epidermal electronics ever made, capable of the same functions as clunky medical equipment without any of the bulk. As sensors become more prominent in healthcare, this breakthrough could allow for comfortable, discrete, wire-free vital monitoring.

Graphene is a metamaterial often praised for its mechanical toughness, flexibility, and superconductivity. On skin, it’s practically invisible, conforming to the skin’s exact ridges. Patients can barely feel it, and it doesn’t confine them to a room, meaning they can go about their day while the device collects data.

How did they do it? Researchers began by growing the graphene on copper to create a 2D carbon sheet, which is coated with polymer. The copper is then etched off, after which the remaining sheet placed on temporary tattoo paper and the graphene carved into electrodes. Now, just like a temporary tattoo, the device can be applied by placing the sheet on skin and applying moisture to its back.

So far, the devices can perform five types of measurements, in some cases even better than more traditional medical equipment used to perform EKGs and EEGs. The incredible quality of its measurements may be due to how closely it sticks to the skin, reducing air gaps that could throw off accuracy.

On top of muscle, heart, and brain measurements, the device can also measure skin hydration and skin temperature. These latter two capabilities will likely be of interest to consumer cosmetics companies.

Once an antenna is added, the device should be able to beam the information to a phone or computer. The possibilities after this really are endless, as similar tattoos could be used to deliver drugs or detect glucose levels. These “tattoos” would essentially be moving display screens that stick on skin—which is pretty cool, with or without the added bonus of healthcare functionality.

How Graphene-Based Contrast Agents Improve MRI Scans

How Graphene-Based Contrast Agents Improve MRI Scans

MRI scans, which generate images of the inside of the body, are important tools when it comes to testing, diagnosing, and detecting internal abnormalities. MRIs sometimes use contrast agents to improve visibility, which, though mostly safe and effective, remain imperfect.

Enter graphene. As it seems with so many areas of science, the inclusion of this atom-thin carbon sheet has the potential to radically improve MRIs—and contrast agents in particular. According to a paper published in the journal Particle and Particle Systems Characterization, discs of graphene called nanoparticles could be used to target specific kinds of tissues during MRI scans.

The material is also incredibly nontoxic, making it even safer than regular contrast agents— some of which have been discovered to have potentially harmful side effects such as nephrogenic systemic fibrosis. According to Sruthi Radhakrishnan, a researcher at Rice, “Virtually all of the widely used contrast agents contain toxic metals, but our material has no metal. It’s just carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and fluorine, and in all of our tests so far it has shown no signs of toxicity.”

Typical contrast agents have their limits, too, which this new agent does not. Where regular contrast agents aren’t suitable for blood pool or tissue-specific imaging, the graphene agent excels.

In addition to being highly efficacious, the new agent is also cost effective, as graphene tends to be. One major reason? The graphene agent can be effective at lower dosages than a traditional agent, reducing the cost per dose. Healthcare costs all around could be reduced, said head researcher Dr. Sitharaman, because “this new MRI contrast agent will substantially improve disease detection by increasing sensitivity and diagnostic confidence, it will enable earlier treatment for many diseases, which is less expensive, and of course more effective for diseases such as cancer.”

Dr. Sitharaman plans to make the graphene-based MRI agent the focus of his startup company, Theragnostic Technologies.

Colorful Graphene Bubbles Produce ‘Mechanical Pixels’

Colorful Graphene Bubbles Produce ‘Mechanical Pixels’

LED technology has enabled the widespread adoption of flat-panel televisions screens and video screens that provide sharp, high-quality images with near-perfect colors. However, that may change in the near future with the introduction of a new type of display technology: ‘mechanical pixels’ produced by graphene bubbles.

Researchers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have been studying the effects of silicon-oxide panels covered with graphene. These sheets of pure carbon are about an atom thick. The silicon panel contains microscopic holes and graphene is stretched over these holes. This allows small, shape-shifting bubbles to form. When the pressure inside the cavities shifts, the bubbles produce different colors by refracting light in a concave or convex state. Graphene bubbles change color as they expand and contract which translates to producing a beautiful array of colors.

Graphene, described as the ‘material of tomorrow’, is the strongest and thinnest material on the planet. It’s a form of carbon and extremely pliable. It was discovered over a decade ago and experiments from Nobel Prize winners in 2010 led to the commercial production of graphene. Since it is such a thin material by nature, researchers at Delft University of Technology had to use a double layer of graphene to produce any type of effect.

So far, the color changes have been observed under a microscope and more testing and experiments are required to see if this process will produce similar results on a larger scale. Using graphene means the new generation of display technology would be extremely lightweight. However, there are still some limitations to this concept. Since there is no way to backlight the display, these panels would only tentatively work with sunlight. In addition, researchers are still trying to create the purest colors from graphene bubbles. Right now, the bubbles produce a full rainbow of colors but not a single, pure primary color with this method.

Will these ‘mechanical pixels’ be creating a wave in the future? There is still much to be explored with this material. Researchers at Delft are working on prototypes that may be ready for the Mobile World Congress tech conference in March 2017.