Governments, companies and universities around the world are dumping billions of dollars into research on graphene, carbon sheets one atom thick, discovered a few years ago.
The first group to figure out how to cheaply and reliably produce large quantities of the "miracle material" could take a leading role in a range of industries it might soon transform -- among them consumer electronics, cars, medical devices and energy production and storage.
It's as flexible as rubber and as clear as lightly tinted glass.
"It is a perfect material," said
Flexible electronic displays likely will be among the first commercially available products the material transforms. If tough, bendable graphene replaces brittle, costly indium tin oxide -- a precious metal key to making touch screens work -- electronics makers could produce flexible cellphones and tablets that wouldn't shatter if dropped.
Yet, graphene's properties allow for far more than a slimmer phone.
Thin layers, long reach
Star's group made a sensor about the size of
Imagine a similar sensor with 100 squares on it, each calibrated to pick up something different, Star said. The problem isn't fitting it on the chip, he said -- it's figuring out "what 100 things do we want to detect in a person's breath."
One exhale from a patient, he said, would let doctors run tests instantly and cheaply without drawing a drop of blood.
A poster near his office shows a rendering of one of his chips plugged into an iPhone port, hinting at a possible future of routine, remote medical diagnoses.
"It has such a wide range of applications," said James Tour, a chemistry professor at
Tour led a research group that made compressed natural gas storage tanks using graphene and plastic, lighter and less permeable than metal tanks, which could make natural gas-fueled vehicles more practical.
The same technology could extend the shelf life of beer and soda.
Cars could drop up to two-thirds of their weight, thanks to graphene.
Star began working with nanoparticles in 2000, four years before graphene's discovery. On his first day as a researcher, he wrote to a
Star asked for a milligram of the material -- an amount too small for the naked eye to see -- for research.
He chuckles at the memory as he points out a blue plastic tub about the size of his head containing a kilogram of nanotubes -- 1 million times as much as that first miniscule request.
"They just gave it to us as a present," he said, smiling.
Such is the speed of "miracle" materials.
Six years later, their discovery won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an award usually given for discoveries that take decades to achieve prominence. The award this year, for example, honors two scientists for a discovery in the early 1960s.
Cost of progress
The field's rapid progress has a cost. Since 2001, the government has spent about
Rather than a coordinated, national graphene research program like the
The EU is concentrating squarely on graphene. In January, it awarded a
"They're focusing very heavily on graphene. I wish we had the money to do that type of thing here in the U.S.," Tour said. "I'm not sure we even have that kind of money anymore."
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.
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