17 Mar 2015

What is graphene? The key questions

A new wonder material discovered by two Russian scientists at Manchester University, graphene promises to transform people’s everyday lives. But what is it? And how will it be used?

The progression from graphite to graphene (Getty)

What is graphene?

Graphene is a form of carbon, a single layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal lattice. Most of us have made graphene ourselves, by simply using a pencil.

It is the thinnest material ever found, a million times thinner than a human hair, and cannot be seen by the human eye without the aid of a microscope.

It is the world’s first 2D material and is very light, but also tough – 200 times as strong as steel, but flexible and stretchable at the same time, as well as being fire resistant and an excellent conductor.

How was it ‘discovered’?

Although scientists have long been aware that graphene exists, the challenge was to extract it from graphite and isolate it. This was achieved in 2004 by a team at Manchester University.

Two Russian-born scientists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, used sticky tape to peel away layers of graphite. What was left on the tape was graphene, although this was not immediately apparent to the two researchers.

What was the reaction?

After Sir Andre and Sir Kostya published their findings in the journal Science in 2004, scientists from around the world descended on Manchester to find out how to repeat their feat. Their discovery earned them Nobel prizes for physics and knighthoods.

Many other countries are now investing in graphene research, alhough Manchester remains the leading centre, with the £61m National Graphene Institute, based in the city, opening its doors any day now.

Researchers in the north west have been working with 35 companies on product development. Their ambition is the production of graphene on an industrial scale through a process called chemical vapour depositon.

How will it be used?

The team in Manchester says that when graphene is used on its own or with other materials, “the possibilities are infinite. It is a young material with the potential to create incredible future technologies and vastly enhance existing products”.

It adds: “The properties of graphene mean that it will touch every area of our lives. It is difficult to imagine an industry where it would not have impact.”

The first products we are likely to see are graphene screens for mobile phones, along with phones and cameras that can be bent, with the added advantage of a much longer battery life.

There are also medical benefits, with Manchester scientists having aleady used graphene to target and neutralise cancer stem cells without damaging other cells. The aim is to prevent and treat cancers, but clinical trials will be needed before this strage is reached.

Graphene could also be used in water purification, aircraft technology and cars, and could create sensors to detect gases or dangerous chemicals, as well as sustainable food packaging that tells consumers when their products have gone off.

Is the government on board?

Yes, Chancellor George Osborne, a Cheshire MP, is a big fan of graphene, seeing science as key to his ambition to create a “northern powerhouse”, with thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of investment following.

In January, during a visit to Manchester, which will be European City of Science in 2016, he and David Cameron talked about making the region a “global centre of outstanding scientific innovation”.

In his autumn statement in December, the chancellor announced £235m in funding for the Manchester-based Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation (a northern version of the Crick Institute in London). This is due to open in 2019 and will play a major part in the development and commercialisation of graphene.

Taxpayers’ money has also gone to the National Graphene Institute and a new Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, but not everyone is impressed. Sir Andre Geim has questioned whether government funding for the National Graphene Institute will be sufficient. Talking to the Independent about George Osborne, he said: “I try to find myself somewhere else when he is visiting so I have an excuse not to meet him.”