Within science fiction, particularly the subgenre known as cyberpunk, humans augment themselves with various technological devices and prosthetics to enhance themselves beyond human capabilities, or to repair themselves in ways that perfectly replicate body functions. So how do modern prosthetics fare compared to the technological marvels of fiction? While we have made huge leaps forward in bionics and myoelectrics, we are not quite yet at the level of the cyberpunk future. But with graphene, we may just be able to get there. The material’s strength, light weight, and endless utility could lead to even more dramatic advancements in prosthetic technology.
In modern prosthetics, bionic limbs have done excellently in replicating movement and function of missing body parts for amputees, offering mostly full range of motion for legs, feet, arms, and hands. This can be contributed to the development of myoelectric sensors, which connect the artificial limb to the natural electrical processes generated by muscles in order to enable complex movement. Hand prosthetics in particular have made major advancements in replicating the intricate and specific motor functions of fingers.
Our advancements in prosthetics make it so that we can successfully regain lost function, but still lack meaningful tactile perception. While some might argue that the absence of pain is a benefit, the use of touch to perceive potentially harmful stimuli to the host would be a valuable addition to the features prosthetics provide, not to mention the emotional and psychological relief that may come with such upgrades to prosthetic tech.
This is where graphene can step in. Scientists have begun to use the wonder material to create a graphene-based skin for prosthetics. This e-dermis electrically stimulates the amputee’s nerves non-invasively through the skin, replicating the process of signal relaying that the brain utilizes in tactile feeling. In addition, graphene’s optical transparency allows for 98% of light to pass through it, making the perfect material to utilize solar energy to power these advanced prosthetics. Of course, pain is not the only feeling that this graphene skin would allow users to process, and it’s potential to make the feeling from phantom limbs a reality again is truly wondrous to behold.
Even more intricate, graphene can potentially be used to create small implants and internal prostheses that would be capable of correcting eyesight or hearing, to repair the body and help in overcoming degenerative diseases, or even help mend broken bones. Previously, silicon-based implants were too damaging to internal tissues if disturbed, and the conditions inside the body damaged the electronic components. However, graphene’s strength, being 200 times stronger than steel, and its flexibility make it much more durable. It is also possible to use graphene to create transistors that are gated by the natural fluids surrounding the implant. With graphene, the hyper-advanced technological developments of cyberpunk are closer than ever.
With graphene, prosthetics are on the cusp of reaching the technological heights of science fiction. Like with many graphene-based products, they are mostly in the testing and research phase, but it’s clear that the application of graphene can bring about a new era in the field of prosthetics and change countless lives.
Graphene has the potential to become the next technological wonder of the world, capable of rapidly advancing our technology the way silicon did when it was first incorporated into electronics. As it stands, our technological progress, especially concerning processing power, is slowing down dramatically, particularly when compared to how quickly we advanced after the introduction of silicon.
Silicon is finally hitting its limits, as transistors become smaller (nearly microscopic in scale) yet ever more powerful. But, experts believe that graphene can replace silicon, leading to another great growth in technological advancement. What would this mean for computer processing units (CPUs)? And just how fast could a graphene-laced CPU go?
This “miracle material” is only one atomic layer thick, made up of carbon atoms in a lattice, honeycomb-like formation. It is capable of conducting up to 10 times more heat than copper, and is able to conduct electricity 250 times more efficiently than silicon. Were graphene to replace silicon transistors in computers, processors would run 1,000 times faster and use far less power.
Ideas have been floated to coat copper wiring used in processors with graphene. As wiring in computer processors get smaller, the amount of current density increases, which in turn raises the amount of heat produced. This can lead to higher amounts of resistive-capacitive delay, or RC delay, preventing electronics from higher speeds. Graphene-coated copper wiring can help prevent harmful electromigration and stop the copper from potentially penetrating the dielectric layer.
However, before we claim graphene is the next technological panacea, there are still some obstacles to overcome. The first issue comes from availability and production scale. China controls approximately 80% of graphite market, and large quantities of usable graphite in the rest of the world are few and far between. This means that even with the development of high speed graphene-based technology, it will be a difficult process moving these products to commercial availability, unless steps are made to encourage graphene trade.
Graphene’s greatest strength is also its other weakness: its high capability for electric conductivity. While silicon naturally has a band gap, an energy range where it does not conduct electricity, graphene does not. Having a band gap is essential to controlling the flow of electricity in processors, and without it, graphene’s use, particularly in improving CPU power, won’t be possible.
But the discovery of graphene didn’t win a Nobel Prize in 2010 for no reason. The potential for graphene remains practically immeasurable, and researchers are already finding ways around the difficulties graphene faces. A team from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) claims to have created a graphene-like material with a band gap similar to silicon, which represents a significant step toward full utilization of graphene in electronic products.
Graphene has the clear capability to create a massive surge in technological advancements, and the material’s negative aspects are quickly being resolved through research and development. Commercial use might still feel far away, but it would be foolish to deny that once it reaches the masses, it will change the world.
From its creation in 2004, scientists, researchers, and manufacturers have marveled at graphene’s extraordinary potential to alter our future. After all, the “supermaterial” is thin, flexible, conductible, lighter than air, impermeable to most gases and liquids, and 100 times stronger than steel. However, while graphene’s uses have already proved widespread in fields from consumer tech to environmental science to medical devices, researchers have struggled to use its two-dimensional strength in three-dimensional materials. No longer.
The implications for graphene were stunning when engineers from Virginia Tech and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory developed a way to 3D print graphene at a resolution far greater than was previously possible. The process expands graphene’s potential applications, making its use more feasible in smaller objects, as well as those with more varied shapes. Whereas before graphite could only be printed in 2D sheets or basic structures, now we have the ability to form more complicated shapes.
The ramifications are widespread. Graphene is now much more likely to be used in materials for infrastructure initiatives, as well as for manufacturing vehicles, airplanes, batteries, artificial limbs, and more. Three of the most exciting areas that researchers will be studying include:
The Space Elevator
The space elevator is a theoretical mode of transportation that, if successfully pursued, would connect Earth and space, making it possible – and more environmentally friendly – to transport objects to space. Up until now, no material was strong enough and light enough to make such a structure possible. With the advent of the new 3D printing process, however, supplies for space stations or colonies could be shipped to space, and the lightweight material would even reduce labor costs for such an endeavor.
Water Purification and Desalination
This year, scientists were able to develop the world’s first laboratory-scale, graphene-based water filter, which successfully removes over 99 percent of the organic material left behind in drinking water after conventional treatment is complete. No other filtration method has come close to removing organic materials with such a high level of success at low pressure. It’s believed that graphene-based membranes could be retrofitted into conventional water treatment plants in the future. As the concentration of organic materials in water supplies increases, our ability to filter them out with chemical coagulants decreases. Graphene could dramatically increase the availability of clean drinking water around the world. In fact, new developments in graphene membranes are even making it possible to convert seawater to drinking water.
Graphene has captured the imagination of scores of scientists studying tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Graphene-based materials are now being used in cardiac, neural, bone, cartilage, musculoskeletal, and skin tissue engineering. It can replace body parts like bones, as well as organs and nerves. Researchers are already using 3D printers to print graphene-based nerves, and developing biocompatible materials using graphene to conduct electricity. It’s also been used as the basis for 3D printed organs, and can be used to develop ultra-sensitive biomedical sensors, capable of detecting diseases, viruses, and other toxins. These sensors have been tested to detect toxins at levels 10 times less than current sensors, and one is even capable of detecting a single cancerous cell.
3D printing graphene will certainly speed the adoption of new technologies capable of solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. Scientists still need to work on making the affordable mass production of the material a reality, but these experiments are underway and, once it’s ready to enter the mainstream, there will be no shortage of critical solutions at the ready.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.