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.