Graphene: How Carbon May Help Save the Planet From Global Warming, Drought and More


Earlier his summer, Tesla founder Elon Musk once again played the futurist wizard and announced he had eclipsed the battery technology used in his all-electric Tesla Model S sedan. Musk hinted that he may be banking on a new technology, graphene, that can nearly double the 265-mile-range of this breakthrough car.

Beyond powering a car that could drive between Chicago and Kansas City on a single charge, graphene batteries should take only a few minutes to charge at a solar charging station, which should make battery-powered vehicles finally practical for most drivers.

But Musk is not talking about putting graphene batteries in his cars years down the road. He says Tesla will add the technology “quite soon,” perhaps shortly after the upstart car company opens its new "gigafactory" in Nevada.

The technology Tesla is banking on to get a 500-plus range in its cars is a not a new idea. It’s a World War II-era concept that was recently actualized by two scientists in Great Britain, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.

But you won’t only find graphene in new Teslas; you’ll soon find it in everything from cellphones to airplanes to contact lenses that give the wearer the ability to see in the dark. Graphene, in fact, might be the lean and green technological breakthrough the world’s been waiting for.

Graphene’s possible applications are many: it’s said to be looked at as part of a new water-filtration technology that can turn seawater into potable water without the need for an expensive and power-hungry desalination plant. This could help more arid regions and undeveloped countries better manage water during severe drought conditions.

Elsewhere on the tech front, graphene will become the base material behind 3-D-printed, flexible and unbreakable cellphones and laptop computers. It may also be used in new medical technologies, such as artificial retinas and miniature cardiac pacemakers. Factories can use it as a viable alternative to precious metals used in the products they manufacture, making their goods more sustainable and less expensive to produce. Graphene fibers can even make the Internet faster, allowing you to download entire film libraries in a few short seconds.

Graphene is pure carbon and only a single atom thick, making a sheet of it hundreds of thousands of times thinner than a sheet of looseleaf paper. Thin as it is, graphene is amazingly durable — roughly 200 times the strength of steel. What makes graphene truly amazing is that it has uniquely fast electron mobility and conducts electricity with phenomenal efficiency. Not even copper and silicon come close. And because it’s practically two-dimensional and crystalline, graphene interacts curiously with light and with other materials, giving it great potential in the field of optics.

Researchers have also found they can easily turn off and on the magnetism in graphene the same way electronic transistors do, which marks a giant leap forward in the field of spintronics, an emerging technology that exploits both the "spin" of an electron as well as its fundamental electronic charge. In laymen’s speak, spintronics makes it possible to process vast amounts of data quickly in an energy-efficient way. 

If green superconductors and miracle batteries are not awe-inspiring enough for you, try this: University of Michigan researchers have created a super-light contact lens based on graphene that detects infrared light and converts it to wavelengths that can be seen by the human eye. Thus, these contact lenses will enable the wearer to see in the dark.

Inspired by the wonder of graphene, scientists are already working on next-generation, two-dimensional materials. Using graphene as inspiration, they’ve created a polymer made from just one layer of atoms that has many of graphene’s characteristics.

The polymer sheets are made of atoms of several different elements, not just carbon, that are laid out in a repeating pattern allowing for them to be easily specialized and manipulated. Scientists are hoping this new material can be used in high-tech optics filters and highly sensitive pressure sensors, for starters. And while these new polymers may still need years of work — making just a tiny sample of the polymer is now an arduous exploit — they may just become integral tools used in the next generation of biochemical and medical research.

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