The scientific community continues to tout graphene’s amazing properties, and one of its most recent promising applications takes its inspiration from an unlikely source: moths. Before we get into what graphene could possibly have to do with this unassuming insect, let’s review the properties that make graphene such a promising material to invest in:
Like something straight out of a comic book, graphene’s properties are unheard of among current materials on the market. This wonder material is 200 times stronger than steel and able to conduct electricity 1000 times faster than copper. As if that’s not impressive enough, graphene is also flexible, stretchy, and transparent. Oh, and it’s a million times thinner than a single strand of hair.
Graphene clearly proves that good things come in small packages. The material’s extreme thinness, however, has presented researchers with a unique set of challenges as well as opportunities. The thin flat material will be critical in medical and electronic applications.However, graphene has proven inefficient at absorbing light, which has delayed the progress of potential optical applications.
All that’s about to change. New research out of the University of Surrey has demonstrated how graphene can be boosted to absorb 90 percent more incident light, rendering graphene the most light absorbent material for its weight to date. The research appears in a new paper in Science Advances. So how did the research team, led by Professor Ravi Silva, work with graphene’s unique properties to supercharge its light absorption to such an impressive extent? Looking to nature, moths–of all creatures–inspired the research team’s solution.
“Moths’ eyes have microscopic patterning that allows them to see in the dimmest conditions. These work by channelling light towards the middle of the eye, with the added benefit of eliminating reflections, which would otherwise alert predators of their location,” explained Professor Silva. “We have used the same technique to make an amazingly thin, efficient, light-absorbent material by patterning graphene in a similar fashion,” he explained.
The team employed a technique called nanotexturing, which involves growing graphene around a textured metallic surface. By creating a texture on the graphene sheet, light can be localized into the spaces between the pattern, thereby creating a kind of “smart” lining that is able to absorb 90 percent more light.
This inspired approach could have all sorts of amazing tech applications. Here are just a few initial uses that Professor Silva noted:
- Solar cells coated with nanotextured sheets could harvest dim light
- Infrared imaging in opto-MEMs devices
- Indoor installation could yield smart wallpaper to generate electricity from light or heat that is typically wasted
- New sensors and energy harvesters for electronic devices could improve performance and efficiency
The recent developments in manipulating the way graphene absorbs light supports the notion that resources found in nature can enhance manmade substances in entirely new and unexpected ways. The natural world is valuable for many reasons, and facilitating the next frontier in cutting edge technology is a source of value that is not often cited. It’s worth remembering that along with the research team at the University of Surrey, we have moths to thank for this big breakthrough.
Whatever field scientists look to improve by applying graphene’s amazing principles to it, major breakthroughs soon follow. Lately the biomedical field has turned its attention to the wonder nanomaterial, and the promising results could revolutionize treatment for motor disorders, paralysis, and limb loss. It’s all about electrodes.
How can this two-dimensional form of carbon that’s thinner than a sheet of paper and stronger than diamond make such bold claims to improve the human brain? Researchers at the University of Trieste in Italy and the Cambridge Graphene Centre have demonstrated how graphene could be used to make electrodes that could safely implant in the brain to treat various medical conditions. These electrodes would interface with nerve cells without damaging the cells’ integrity. Part of graphene’s strength in medical applications is its amazing properties of conductivity, making it a natural winner for electrodes.
Successful implantation of graphene based electrodes in the brain could lead to new breakthroughs in restoring sensory function to amputee and paralysed patients, and could provide new hope for patients with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Triest. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”
This is a huge breakthrough for electrodes, as they’ve previously been hampered by the limitations of other materials, such as tungsten or silicon. Typically these materials have been shown to lose conductivity over time, as scar tissue forms over the part of the brain where the electrode was surgically inserted. Graphene solves that problem by being highly biocompatible in research.
This is an exciting first step in revolutionizing deep brain implants. Check out the full research here, and for other exciting recent medical news on graphene, check out this post on how graphene will revolutionize the production of artificial limbs.
Since its discovery in 2004, graphene’s reputation as the hottest nanomaterial on the block has extended far beyond science labs. With over 25,000 patents filed for potential applications, graphene is poised to revolutionize several industries that directly affect our day to day lives.
Stronger than diamond and thinner than a sheet of paper, graphene is a single atom thick hexagonal layer of graphite. To add to its street cred, graphene can carry 1,000 times more electricity than copper, has a flexible structure that allows for strength without rigidity, and can dissipate heat like nobody’s business. Because of its unique physicochemical properties and high surface-to-volume ratio, graphene is uniquely positioned to lead the charge on a number of promising medical breakthroughs.
1. Sensitive Prosthetics
At the University of Glasgow, a research team led by Dr. Ravinder Dahiya recently found a way to cut graphene production costs by 100x, and in the process, realized that the nanomaterial could radically improve prosthetic limbs. Whereas today’s prosthetics are made of carbon fiber composites, Dr. Dahiya believes that using graphene could provide an ultra-flexible, conductive skin-like surface that could allow for sensation to be conveyed through prosthetics for the first time.
2. Faster Gene Sequencing
Successful simulations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated how graphene could improve gene sequencing to make it significantly more accurate and rapid than today’s chemical process. The method involves nanopore sequencing, in which a single DNA molecule gets pulled through a tiny, chemically active hole in a super thin sheet of graphene, allowing changes in electrical current to be detected.
This method suggests that about 66 billion bases—the smallest units of genetic info—could be identified in just one second through this method. Even more impressive, the study has found the results to be 90% accurate with no false positives. If the simulation proves as effective in experiments, this could be a huge breakthrough in several fields that utilize genetic information, including forensics.
3. Banishing Bacteria
New research from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and the Institute for Complex Systems in Rome has found graphene oxide to be capable of decreasing infections spread from medical tools to patients. Coating medical tools with this carbon-based compound could greatly decrease the prevalence of at least three common post-surgery infections, thereby reducing the need for antibiotics. Graphene oxide has been found to have amazing antibacterial properties, effectively wrapping around the bacteria, puncturing its membrane, and ensuring that it can’t reproduce once inside the human body.
This novel method of blocking bacteria would be more environmentally-friendly than current methods, and also safer: unlike drug based antimicrobial therapy, graphene is just carbon—a building block of life—and therefore its cytotoxicity on human cells is very low. In other words, graphene is about to become the world’s smallest medical superhero, banishing microscopic bad guys that lurk on “clean” medical tools.
4. Building Better Brains
Researchers at the University of Trieste in Italy and the Cambridge Graphene Centre have demonstrated how graphene could be used to make electrodes that could be safely implanted in the brain to treat various medical conditions. These electrodes would interface with nerve cells without damaging the cells’ integrity. Central to graphene’s appeal in medical applications is its amazing properties of conductivity, making it a natural winner for electrodes.
Successful implantation of graphene based electrodes in the brain could lead to new breakthroughs in restoring sensory function to amputee and paralysed patients, and could provide new hope for patients with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Tungsten and silicon based electrodes lose conductivity over time, as scar tissue grows over the device and alters the signal. Graphene, however, remains highly biocompatible, even with scar tissue regrowth. In other words, graphene is about to help doctor’s build better, more responsive brains.
Photo Credit: Flickr/UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences
Graphene is at the forefront of yet another breakthrough in medical technology. Thanks to the thinnest-in-the-world material, people with diabetes might one day be spared a life of constant injections.
Last month, the journal Nature Nanotechnology detailed the success of a new graphene-based wrist patch that can sense changes in a diabetic person’s sweat (i.e. noticing a change in their pH level or perceiving certain body-temperature fluctuations that signal rising glucose levels). The patch’s sensor technology can be wirelessly paired with a smartphone, thereby giving the wearer an easy way to keep tabs on the highs and lows of their glucose levels.
As needed, the wrist patch will release a dose of the drug metformin through a series of microneedles much less invasive than the typical insulin delivery systems currently on the market. Graphene’s new method of regulating and reducing blood sugar levels is a huge breakthrough for patients and doctors alike.
Researchers tested the wrist patch on diabetic mice. This could be one of the reasons that Nova Next, PBS’s science and technology hub, calls the device’s capabilities “relatively limited.” Still, the advancement could mean a lot for the future of continuous glucose monitoring and management. The device’s success on mice is an important first step in developing this technology further for human patients.
It’s no surprise that graphene, with its virtual transparency and excellent ability to transmit heat, was a go-to material for the experimental skin patch. But in order for graphene to be the key player in real-time glucose monitoring, the researchers needed to give it a boost. By enhancing the graphene patch with gold in the form of a fine mesh, the research team was able to enhance the device’s electrochemical interface, allowing the stable transfer of electrical signals between the patient’s skin and the patch.
The sweat-based diabetes monitor signals a booming business that targets a rapidly increasing demographic. According to a new report from the World Health Organization, the number of people with diabetes has quadrupled to 422 million in the last 30 years. As for the number of people in the U.S. with diabetes, the CDC puts that figure at a little more than 29 million, which is nearly ten percent of the population.
Some accredit the increase in the number of diabetic patients to the rising prevalence of sedentary lifestyles. According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes is especially prevalent among seniors. As the number of elderly individuals increases, so too will the demand for new and better glucose monitoring technology products. Experts see continuous glucose monitoring as a cost-effective measure that possibly reduces hospital stays, not to mention giving diabetic patients more control of their health.
Diabetes is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States. Market research publisher Kalorama Information released a report last year estimating that the worldwide glucose monitoring device and diabetes management market is estimated at $10,025 billion. With ever-developing technology and the strong desire for non-invasive methods for glucose monitoring, this segment of the diabetes management industry is prime for growth.
Keeping tabs on glucose levels is the foundation of diabetes management. It’s exciting to see that graphene, long heralded for its limitless potential in the wearable technology field, could one day provide a simple solution to millions of people who are living with diabetes.
Weighing in at just 1 microgram, graphene’s latest application as an optical lens is a huge game changer in a very small package. 300 times thinner than a single sheet of paper, an all new graphene lens has been developed by the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia this month. This tiny lens could lead to a huge technological breakthrough, in the form of optical computers capable of processing data at the speed of light.
Essentially, an optical computer uses photons in light beams, rather than electric current, to perform digital computations. Information is stored in the form of photons on photonic chips, allowing data to be transferred at the speed of light. While NASA is already developing a light-based modem, one of the major roadblocks in the development of more mainstream optical computers has been the need for a super thin lens to split beams of light and divert them around the photonic chips.
The science community is cheering as graphene has once again risen to the challenge, this time in the form of a super thin, strong yet flexible lens that diverts light beams while keeping the chips intact. Capable of splitting a single beam of photons, these new graphene lenses will be much more cost efficient and perform better than previous substances that scientists have experimented with, including gold.
The team at Swinburne University found success in 3D printing a thin layer of sprayable graphene oxide. The lens is able to precisely zoom in on elements just 200 nanometers in size. So in addition to powering optical computers, this new application for graphene could be a huge game changer in a wide array of industries.
Smartphones could become smaller and lighter thanks to camera lenses made with graphene. Medical treatments could also get a huge boost from the ability to study bacteria on a more in-depth level than ever before, thanks to microscopes fitted with graphene lenses. The Swinburne team is currently working on developing a graphene and fibre endoscope that would be smaller and more sophisticated than those on the market today.
On top of all that, graphene lenses could also improve nanosatellites—a growing field of tiny satellites that are as strong as Sputnik, but exponentially smaller and able to transmit data more swiftly. Graphene will make these nanosatellites lighter in weight and better able to focus on Earth.
From our smartphones to outer space, there’s hardly an area of our modern lives that graphene can’t improve upon. Despite its small stature, this breakthrough graphene oxide lens has the potential to change our world in major ways.
The latest game changing use for graphene is not in its ability to revolutionize mobile technology—although it can do that too—but as a filter to clean nuclear wastewater much more efficiently than current methods.
New research from the University of Manchester, led by Sir Andre Geim, has demonstrated how a graphene membrane can be used as a sieve to make the production of heavy water ten times less energy intensive. This breakthrough would also make the production of heavy water significantly cheaper and simpler than current production methods.
So what exactly is heavy water? The term refers to water in which the hydrogen in the molecules is partly or wholly replaced by the isotope deuterium. Heavy water is commonly used as a moderator in nuclear reactors, as power plants require heavy water by the tons of thousands in order to operate.
Sir Geim’s team found that membranes made of graphene can act as a sieve to separate protons—nuclei of hydrogen—for the heavier nuclei of deuterium. The reason this is such a major breakthrough? This is the first time a membrane has been made that is capable of distinguishing between subatomic particles.
Specifically, tritium—a radioactive isotope of hydrogen—needs to be safely removed as a byproduct of electricity generation at nuclear fission plans. Graphene’s ability to safely filter out this radioactive substance is a huge step forward for the future of nuclear technology, especially since the filter process is fully scalable.
“We hope to see applications of these filters not only in analytical and chemical tracing technologies but also in helping to clean nuclear waste from radioactive tritium.” – Professor Irina Grigorieva, University of Manchester
Ever the shape shifter, graphene has found a new form with which to revolutionize the design and production process of wearable electronics. We’re talking about foam, but not the kind you might be familiar with. Recently patented by Graphene 3D Lab Inc., graphene flex foam is a multilayer, freestanding three dimensional foam and elastomer composite that is super lightweight and conducive.
The most notable aspect of the latest graphene breakthrough is its flexibility. Elena Polyakova, Co-CEO of Graphene 3D, is confident in flex foam’s versatile applications: “Any company interested in a freestanding, stable, ultralight, highly conductive material that can flex with their product and fit into any space, will be interested in this innovation.” A highly porous structure allows the foam to flex, fold and fit into tight spaces, which is sure to have many applications in wearable technology and beyond. Here are four ways we can expect to see graphene flex foam put to use in the near future:
1. Lithium-Ion Batteries
According to Daniel Stolyarov, Co-CEO of Graphene 3D, “Graphene Flex Foam is an excellent substrate candidate in the manufacture of electrodes of lithium-ion batteries.” The main form of batteries powering a wide array of electronics including watches, lithium ion batteries have long been overdue for a powerful upgrade that flex foam can provide.
2. Wearable Electronic Sensors
Wearable electronics have only just scratched the surface of their true potential. Because smartwatches and other wearables need to be super flexible, their form has so far been dictated by the limits of less capable materials than graphene. With flex foam, we can expect to see the design process of wearable tech completely freed up. The electronics, sensors, and conductive properties that wearable tech requires will be perfectly addressed by graphene in a flexible, freestanding and stable foam form.
3. Shock Absorber for Phone Displays
Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru have successfully demonstrated how graphene flex foam can be used for stronger phone displays. A miniature shock absorber made of flex foam could help keep phones and laptops from shattering.“Composed of an extremely thin layer of graphene, its density is only 0.54 grams per cubic cm, as compared to 7.87 and 2.7 gram per cubic cm of iron and aluminium respectively,” says Abha Mishra, assistant professor, Department of Applied Physics. Flex foam can also withstand more cycles of operation than traditional shock absorbers.
4. Deadly Gas Sensor
Nitrogen dioxide is one of the main causes of pollution in the atmosphere, and this same research team has discovered a way to use graphene flex foam to detect dangerous levels of the gas that could have life-saving applications. “The graphene-based sensors work on the principle that charge transfer takes place between graphene foams and adsorbed gas molecules. This changes the resistance of the foams and hence their electrical conductivity (how easily current can flow). By measuring these changes in electrical conductivity,it can be easily correlated with the levels of ambient nitrogen dioxide,” explains Abha Mishra, assistant professor, Department of Applied Physics.
Thinner than paper, stronger than diamond, and more conductive than copper, graphene is poised to change the world in a wide array of industries. Among the most exciting applications for graphene will be its use in advancing wearable technology.
Recent breakthroughs by scientists at the University of Manchester have demonstrated how low cost, flexible graphene wearable devices will be embedded into clothing and even skin in the near future. The report, published in Scientific Reports, emphasizes graphene’s amazing flexibility and electric conductivity as the primary factors that will lead this charge into the future of wearable tech.
Lead researcher Dr. Zhirun Hu from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering called the breakthrough a significant step forward: ““We can expect to see a truly all graphene enabled wireless wearable communications system in the near future.”
Dr. Hu’s team used printed graphene to build transmission lines and antenna, which they then connected to the arms of a mannequin. Testing mobile and Wifi connectivity in different communication devices, they found that the devices were able to ‘talk’ to each other, thereby creating an on-body communications system. This could have huge potential for health care applications such as monitoring vital signs.
With graphene’s extreme thinness and flexibility, we can expect to see “smart-skin” applications, in which adhesives embedded with graphene will monitor various health statistics. We’ll likely see fitness wearables move into this skin realm, as well.
This exciting research demonstrates how we’ll soon be using printed graphene to do the work of RF signal transmitting, radiating and receiving, which forms the basis of wireless wearables. Because graphene can be printed at low temperatures, it remains compatible with heat-sensitive flexible materials. These attributes open up major design potential for wearables, which have previously been hampered by bulky interfaces and inflexible batteries.
Graphene’s amazing properties continue to find exciting new applications thanks to the ingenuity of scientists like Dr. Hu’s team at the University of Manchester. Once graphene is successfully implemented in wearable tech devices, its value will only continue to skyrocket.
1. Graphene Powers World’s Thinnest Light Bulb
At only one atomic layer thick, graphene reached a new milestone last spring when it was successfully used to create the world’s thinnest light bulb. When electric current runs through the filament, it heats up enough to emit light. Because graphene is a poor conductor of heat, it’s able to emit light without damaging the surrounding microchip—something that scientists were never able to crack with other materials. Thanks to this breakthrough, we can expect to see brighter, cheaper, more energy efficient light bulbs on the market soon.
2. Graphene Gets Cheap & Easy to Produce
Before 2015, graphene’s only drawback was that it was time consuming and expensive to produce. Fortunately scientists at the University of Glasgow just cut production costs by 100x, thanks to utilizing cheap copper foil that typically powers lithium-ion batteries. This breakthrough will make graphene commercially available for all sorts of applications in the near future.
3. Graphene Brings 3D Holograms to Life
Previously the stuff of sci-fi movies, 3D holograms are now possible to view with the naked eye, thanks to graphene. Scientists at the Swineburne University of Technology have discovered a way to apply graphene oxide to touch screen surfaces like phones and watches, such that they emit 3D holograms in space. This may seem like magic, but it’s all about tweaking the refractive index of graphene oxide, such that light bends to produce a “screen” secondary to your eyes. In the next few years we can expect these holograms to scale up in size and reach practical applications.
4. Graphene Enhanced Spider Webs
While this may sound like a plot from a Spiderman movie, researchers have successfully transmitted graphene onto spiders, who spun a web incorporating the nanomaterial. The result? Webs with silk 3.5 times stronger than the spiders’ natural silk—which is already among the strongest natural materials in the world. This discovery could lead to the creation of incredibly strong bionic materials that could revolutionize building and construction methods.
5. Graphene Mimics Origami for Smart Design Applications
Origami is an ancient paper folding technique with smart applications for today’s cutting edge technology. Researchers at the Donghua University in Shanghai have recently applied origami’s principles to graphene, creating a shape shifting material that could lead to huge breakthroughs in fields such as robotics, tissue engineering, and prosthetics.
6. Graphene Could Power Battery-Free Electric Cars
Combining two layers of graphene with one layer of electrolyte could be the key to getting us in battery-free electric cars within the next five years. By replacing the cumbersome and costly car battery with a graphene powered supercapacitor, scientists may have hit on the answer to the stunted growth of electric cars. Supercapacitors could lead to faster vehicle acceleration and speedy charging. Combined with the fact that they’re also smaller, lighter, and stronger than today’s electric batteries batteries, it’s clear that graphene will reshape the auto industry in coming years.
7. Graphene Will Revolutionize Electronic Manufacturing
The recent application of graphene based inks will fuel breakthroughs in high-speed manufacturing of printed electronics. Graphene’s optical transparency and electrical conductivity make it much more appealing than traditional ink components. Thanks to its flexibility, future electronics might be able to be printed in unexpected shapes.
8. Graphene-Based LED for Flexible Tech Displays
The next generation of smartphones, tablets and watches will be stronger, thinner and more flexible thanks to graphene. Researchers in England have developed prototypes of flexible tech displays made with graphene, which could lead to the ultimate goal for wearable tech: a fully folding display screen.
9. Graphene Keeps Electronics from Overheating
Heat dissipation has always been a roadblock to tech design. Not so anymore, thanks to graphene’s newly discovered ability to evenly distribute heat across electronics’ surfaces when constructed in a 3D Hexagonal boron nitride structure. This could mean not only a solution for overheated smartphones and tablets, but also a potential solution for engineers to apply to cooling mechanisms like nanofluids.
10. Graphene + Lithium = Superconductor
Doping graphene with lithium changes the behavior of electrons passing through it and turns the material into a superconductor. This has enormous potential, as a superconductor can produce a constant and continuous circuit of energy that won’t dissipate or degrade over time. A processor with superconducting graphene would pack transistors far more tightly than silicone. It would also produce a very small amount of heat in the process, which would allow for greater size and density.
Since its discovery in 2004, graphene has been hailed as a wonder material, leading to over 25,000 patents for its potential applications. In the decade since, few have reached consumer applications because the cost to produce graphene has been prohibitively high. The good news: production costs and methods are changing for the better, thanks to recent innovations by researchers at the University of Glasgow. This could mean better bulletproof armor, light bulbs, artificial limbs, and even bionic spiderwebs becoming a reality in the near future.
University of Glasgow researchers have discovered a way to cut the cost of large scale graphene production by 100x, thanks to utilizing cheap copper foil that typically powers lithium-ion batteries. The research team took the established graphene production method of chemical vapour deposition—in which gaseous reactants form a film on another surface—but wanted to mimic it with a more cost effective component than the expensive copper typically used. The team were the first to try ultra-thin copper foil for the graphene formation, and the smooth surface of the foil worked even better than anticipated.
In addition to hitting upon a production method 100x cheaper, the research team found that this production method also led to better performing optical and electrical transistors than previous production methods. Led by Dr Ravinder Dahiya, the research findings, published in Scientific Reports, are significant because they take us one step closer to graphene being a huge game changer in health care, mobile tech, and beyond. We’ve already talked about 10 ways graphene will change the world; now that production costs are coming down, we will likely see many of these innovations hit the market in the next few years.
Dr. Dahiya’s field of study has been focused on synthetic skin. Graphene, he believes, will change the way prosthetic limbs are manufactured. More importantly, graphene might be able to provide sensation for users in ways that today’s cutting edge prosthetics simply cannot. How? Graphene is very flexible and conducive, which could be a game changer for today’s prosthetics, which are typically made of carbon fiber composites.
Every week scientists are finding exciting new applications for graphene to innovate the status quo. With the production breakthroughs brought on by Dr. Dahiya’s research, we’re one step closer to living in a world made smarter through amazing nanomaterials. For the full report on this lower cost production method for graphene, check out the Scientific Report abstract.
Photo: University of Glasgow