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.
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.
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.
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.
In his fascinating profile of the scientific minds behind graphene, John Colapino, writing for The New Yorker, concludes that despite its many advantages, the hype surrounding graphene is disproportionate to its actual uses.
Two years later, breakneck innovation at the finest laboratories across the world has resulted in a number of unconventional, potentially world-changing applications for graphene, as chronicled by tech magazine Endgadget.
Of the 72% of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water, only about 3% of it is fit to drink, with the rest taking the form of oceans, brackish lakes, and the like. The problem is compounded when you consider that seawater desalination is too expensive and energy intensive to implement on a wide scale.
But graphene filters are a game-changing innovation. Thanks to their incredibly fine size, measuring 100 nanometers (roughly the width of an atom), water molecules can pass through while salt molecules are trapped, allowing what was once thought impossible: simply filtering seawater to make freshwater.
Faster-charging, longer-lasting batteries
The weaknesses of lithium ion batteries are well-known, from fire risks to decreased battery life. But researcher Han Lin, based at Australia’s Swinburne University, has discovered a way to 3D print graphene batteries which charge more quickly and don’t deteriorate over time.
Rain-powered solar energy
The name might sound like a misnomer, but it’s actually quite simple: Chinese scientists from Yunnan Normal University and Ocean University coated solar cells with graphene, so that when it comes in contact with the natural salts in rainwater, electricity is generated. While efficiency can still be improved, this experiment is an important proof of concept that could bring solar panels to traditionally rainy, cloudy areas.
Commercially-viable, long life lightbulbs
Created by the University of Manchester, where graphene sheets were first unveiled in 2004, researchers coated filaments in graphene for longer-lasting, efficient lifespans. According to the BBC, graphene lightbulbs went on sale late last year, and are said to have a 10% reduction in energy use.
Light, spongy material to clean up oil spills
While cleaning up oil spills has traditionally been a key use of graphene, researchers at China’s Zhejiang University created a lightweight graphene sponge that can reportedly absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil.
Though paper has been around since 740 C.E., it has always been known as a weak, especially fragile writing material that is susceptible to tearing and water damage, to name a few. Graphene-based paper, however, has ten times the tensile strength of steel, and is recyclable and conductive to boot–ensuring uses across a wide range of industries.
Graphite, the precursor material to graphene, is one of the most common resources in the world today and a versatile material with plenty of dynamic applications.
If you follow my blog, you know how much faith I have in graphene as a wonder material of the future. Recently, I wrote about some other amazing wonder materials, one of which is spider’s silk — a biological material that is at once stronger than steel, environmentally friendly, low-energy and high-information. So, my readers, if silk has so much potential, here’s a question for you: what would happen when you feed graphene to silkworms?
Silkworm silk, for those that don’t know, does not have the same qualities has spider’s silk. But if you feed silkworms graphene, scientists have discovered, something amazing happens: the silk produced takes on the qualities of graphene.
According to CSMonitor, “the experiment yielded a silk that is twice as tough as ordinary silk and can cope with 50 percent more stress. It also conducts electricity, meaning it could be used to produce wearable electronics.”
The scientists accomplished this by dissolving graphene in water and spraying the solution onto mulberry leaves, which were then fed to the silkworms. The implications here are huge because, due to the speed at which silkworms produce, high-strength silk fibers could be produced on a large scale, bringing graphene into the mainstream.
Such fibers could be used to create super-strong, protective clothing, environmentally-friendly electronics, and a range of other products, too.
Scientists still aren’t sure exactly how the silkworms are processing the graphene and incorporating it into the silk, so there is still a ways to go in understanding and optimizing this process. Another experiment has found that silkworms can be genetically engineered to produce spider silk. We can only imagine what feeding graphene to those creatures might yield!
I’m constantly amazed at the extraordinary results of experiments with graphene and other wonder materials. And remember, this is only the beginning. If graphene aficionados like myself are right, graphene could change our lives in the same way plastics did. I’ll be watching to see what comes with each development, and advise that you do too!