IN 1907, a New Yorker named Leo Bakeland coined an invention that would permanently change the world.
By combining the chemicals phenol and formaldehyde, Bakeland created a unique synthetic material. He called his discovery ‘plastic’.
Within a few short decades, plastics had taken over the world. After the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, Bakeland ushered in the Plastic Age. They’re now used in everything, from large-scale industry and manufacturing, to everyday toys, technology and tools.
Of course, plastics are not without issue – the environmental impact has been significant – but Bakeland’s invention was truly transformative in myriad ways. But in the 21st century, there’s a new revolutionary material on the scene: graphene.
On the surface, graphene sounds like a straightforward material: a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. But graphene is anything but simple.
Because it’s just one layer of atoms thick, graphene is incredibly light. But its carbon construction and honeycomb structure make it extremely tough: about 200 times stronger than steel. It’s also flexible, like paper, and completely transparent.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about graphene is the way that it interacts with electricity. Graphene is a fantastic conductor – electrons can pass through it almost at the speed of light and without much resistance. It’s also a good conductor of heat – much better than commonly used materials like copper.
The combination of these properties – lightness, strength, flexibility, transparency and conductivity –make graphene a potentially revolutionary material.
With these properties, we could create phones and computers batteries that last far longer, and develop feather light and super strong structures. We might even see the emergence of extremely thin, flexible touchscreens; if graphene can be made cheap to produce, newspapers, magazines and everyday paper could be produced in a digital format as standard.
Of course, a great deal of work is still needed. Graphene has proved challenging to engineer, and many obstacles lie ahead before it becomes commonplace.
But there is real justification for the hype. Research from the Central Laser Facility at STFC’S Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has shown that graphene may one day replace silicone as the material of choice for computer chips.
These chips are the foundation of modern technology, and finding a cheaper and potentially more powerful alternative could transform our electronic devices. This work is still in its early stages, but scientists think graphene-based computer chips could be considerably faster than those we currently use.
Research at the Oxfordshire-based facility is also exploring the way in which graphene transforms light into electricity. This is an important property for photovoltaics: the materials that make up solar panels. If we can effectively harness this energy, graphene could provide a powerful new tool for green energy generation.
Graphene is an enormously complex and multifaceted material, and we’re only just beginning to probe all that it’s capable of. Just last week, scientists at the University of Manchester revealed a way of using graphene as an advanced ‘sieve’ to separate salt from water, making seawater drinkable. This development holds real promise for some of the estimated 663 million people currently without access to safe water.
Back in the early 1900s, it must have seemed inconceivable that we would one day live in a world dominated by a relatively unknown material. But the proliferation of cheap, durable and versatile plastics has reshaped the lives of people the world over.
One day, in the not too distant future, our lives may once again look very different. Thanks to graphene, things that once seemed beyond the realms of imagination could eventually become reality. Proving once again that a peculiar material and a little innovation really can change the world.