At the bleeding edge of the tech wars, flexible atom-thick materials have been causing a stir among engineers since the late 1980s, when graphene was finally synthesized. Graphene is highly valued for its high conductivity, great flexibility and amazing strength. Research has shown great potential in printing graphene for paper-based electronic circuits, electronics applications, computer memory and improved vehicle batteries.
Around 100 times stronger than steel, graphene is almost transparent and a highly efficient conductor of both electricity and heat. However, because graphene is very rigid, there are hard limitations on flexible applications. Graphene can be difficult to stretch in other processes.
Beginning in 2014, researchers began to identify and finally to synthesize a new nanomaterial, borophene. An atom-thick sheet composed of 36 boron atoms in a triangular lattice, borophene forms hexagonal holes in the centers of the molecules. The result is a stronger, less expensive and lighter material with similar properties to graphene. Is there really any need for both nanomaterials?
Although graphene performs far better in touch screen designs than the currently standard indium-tin oxide, the big holdup is its sheer cost. A one-micron flake of graphene is currently valued at over 1,000 U.S. dollars. One of the most expensive substances on the planet, graphene is far too expensive to justify such a use in mass manufacturing.
Soon there were other nanomaterials with similar applications, including silicene, germanene, molybdenum disulfide, graphitic carbon-nitride and hexagonal boron-nitride, which led to the synthesization of borophene. Borophene’s properties are similar to those of graphene, but it’s much stronger, far more flexible and significantly lighter.
Borophene is the most flexible nanomaterial produced to date. Interestingly, the unique properties of boron at the molecular level mean that borophene actually becomes stronger when placed under strain, rather than shattering or cracking. Such properties offer the possibility of materials that are custom tuned to specific stress requirements.
With a higher electron density than graphene, supercooled borophene may be able to conduct electricity with no significant energy leakage. This could exponentially increase both the power and speed of computing electronics. Borophene might just make historic differences in computing power, with great promise for stabilizing quantum computer technology.
When borophene is accumulated on a silver surface from a vapor, it creates a rough surface with astounding levels of electron conduction along ridges in the surface. With directional structures like ridges that can be used as switches, borophene holds great promise for light polarization applications.
With exceedingly light weight, high strength and the ability to stretch while conducting electricity, wearable device technology would become far more practical, allowing embedded devices in clothing for life support reasons. Because boron has high chemical reactivity, sheets of borophene could easily be bonded to sheets of other nanomaterials to tune their properties for specific applications.
Graphene has created a market that has now reached over nine million dollars. Borophene is lighter, stronger, better conducting and possesses material properties that can’t be duplicated by graphene. Perhaps most important, borophene is far cheaper to manufacture than graphene, bringing some previously impossible ideas into the realm of likelihood. But borophene is not without its own disadvantages. With more research and time, it’s very likely that we’ll see both graphene and borophene fulfill a wide variety of roles in our society.