Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester is a city with a rich history of ingenuity and innovation. From revolutionising transport with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 and the world’s first passenger railway in 1830 to Ernest Rutherford splitting the atom in 1917, it has long been at the forefront of science and engineering.
It’s a heritage that continues to this day, as we now have graphene to add to that list.
Nowhere is Manchester’s proud history of innovation seen more clearly than in the discovery of graphene and in this article, I want to tell the story of how this wonder material was discovered and how it is impacting our world – as well as the potential implications it has for our future.
Graphene: The Wonder Material
Graphene consists of a layer of carbon just one atom thick. This two-dimensional atomic crystal boasts a wide range of properties. This makes it the perfect substance for developing new technologies.
Graphene is, not only the thinnest material we know of at just a single atom in thickness but it is also the strongest compound ever discovered. As well as this its properties make it the lightest material we know of (a square meter of graphene weighs just 0.77 milligrams). It is also flexible, transparent and extremely conductive both thermally and electrically.
What’s more, it is relatively simple and affordable to produce, allowing researchers all over the world to continue to discover new applications for it.
The Discovery of Graphene
The history of graphene goes back as far as 1859 when research on it began. However, despite knowing that it existed, no scientist could extract it from graphite. It remained a theoretical material for another 145 years when in 2004 graphene was finally isolated by two scientists at the University of Manchester: Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov and Professor Sir Andre Geim.
One night, during an experiment, they managed to separate thin flakes from a block of graphite using sticky tape, and they saw that the flakes had different thicknesses. They repeatedly separated the graphite fragments – until they created flakes one atom thick.
This was the first time anyone had managed to isolate an individual atomic carbon layer, and it was a breakthrough that would lead to Novoselov and Geim receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.
Their ‘sticky tape’ method is also known as the micromechanical cleavage technique, and it was simple but incredibly effective. No large investment is required to use the technique, and because of this, the area of science has grown very quickly since their discovery. There are now laboratories all over the world researching different areas of graphene.
Graphene Is Still Being Researched in Manchester
It’s good to see that the graphene research is still going on in Manchester. For many years, the city has had a thriving startup scene that champions new business and innovative tech startups, connecting leading academics to the business world.
No better is this illustrated when, in September 2018, the University of Manchester announced the launch of a new business using graphene to develop innovative rubbers. Grafine Ltd is located at the Innovation Centre, and it will carry out product development at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). This could lead to developments in rubbers and elastomers used in a wide range of products, from shoes and tyres to medical devices.
Other Graphene Applications
Because of its unique properties, graphene can be used for a huge range of applications – and it has a number of exciting possibilities that have not yet been developed. The potential is enormous. It is already making an impact in numerous industries, from energy to medicine to defence.
- Graphene can be used for biomedical applications, such as making drug delivery more targeted and creating innovative medical devices.
- Graphene could play a key role in the next generation of electronics, from bending phones to faster computers and wearable tech. The smallest transistor in the world was created by University of Manchester researchers using graphene, and graphene chips could even replace silicon chips in computers because they are much faster.
- Graphene could lead to an energy revolution. It could be used to eventually charge a phone in seconds, and it could also be used to increase the lifespan of batteries while making them lighter and more flexible. This could improve storage for wind and solar power.
But perhaps the most exciting field of research involves composite materials based on graphene. The discovery of graphene led to the discovery of more 2D materials like molybdenum disulfide. When combined with graphene, they create new designer materials – called heterostructures. They have different layers of materials in any combination, so new materials can essentially be created for specific functions.
Recent Graphene Developments
As you can imagine, graphene is constantly in the press as interesting new developments are made. Some recent examples are:
- A new device that absorbs light was created in Australia and heats up to 160°C rapidly, with potential for use in optical components and desalination.
- The combination of graphene and cobalt was discovered by IMDEA Nanociencia researchers and can be used to create new logic devices that store more data with less energy consumption.
- Paragraf, a company in Cambridge, has recently started to produce graphene at commercial scale up to eight inches in diameter.
It seems that there is no limit to the exciting developments. Indeed, one of the latest discoveries surrounds twisted graphene. It turns out that graphene takes on new properties when twisted at the right angle, presenting a whole new area of research.
The Graphene Story Is Only Just Beginning
Despite all the exciting innovations that have been made since graphene was first discovered, it’s clear that research around this miracle material is only just getting started. Some predict that it could have as big an impact on our world as the Industrial Revolution – so it’s fitting that it was discovered in Manchester.