Graphene – A easy introduction – Clarify that Stuff Search Commercial Atoms Under the Floorboards banner promotion

A red and black pencil laying a line of graphite on a white page.

by Chris Woodford. Final up to date: April 25, 2021.

If the twentieth century was the age of plastics, the twenty first century appears set to turn into the age of graphene—a lately found materials produced from honeycomb sheets of carbon only one atom thick. Science journals have been working out of superlatives for this wondrous stuff: it is simply concerning the lightest, strongest, thinnest, greatest heat- and electricity- conducting materials ever found. And if we’re to consider the hype, it guarantees to revolutionize every part from computing to automotive tires and photo voltaic cells to smoke detectors. What is that this unusual and noteworthy new stuff? Let’s take a better look!

Photograph: A pencil like this can be a wood shaft crammed with a stick of sentimental graphite, a kind of carbon produced from strongly bonded layers of atoms which can be very weakly held collectively by van der Waals forces. As you drag your pencil alongside the web page, the skinny layers of graphite shear off and keep behind, making the black line you’ll be able to see. Now should you might shave off a super-thin layer of graphite, only one atom excessive, what you’d have could be graphene. There are tiny specks of graphene in any pencil mark like this, however since they’re just one atom excessive, you will be doing nicely to identify them!

What’s graphene?

In class you most likely discovered that carbon is available in two primary however startlingly totally different types (or allotropes), specifically graphite (the tender, black stuff in pencil “leads”) and diamond (the super-hard, sparkly crystals in jewellery). The wonderful factor is that each these radically totally different supplies are product of equivalent carbon atoms. So why is graphite totally different to diamond? The atoms inside the 2 supplies are organized in numerous methods, and that is what provides the 2 allotropes their utterly totally different properties: graphite is black, uninteresting, and comparatively tender (tender and arduous pencils combine graphite with different supplies to make darker or fainter traces); diamond is clear and the toughest pure materials thus far found.

If that is what you discovered in class, you most likely completed your research fairly some time in the past, as a result of in the previous couple of years scientists have found varied different carbon allotropes with much more fascinating properties. There are fullerenes (found in 1985; hole cages of carbon atoms, together with the so-called Buckyball, Buckminsterfullerene, produced from a form of football-shaped cage of 60 carbon atoms), nanotubes (found in 1991; flat sheets of carbon atoms curled into amazingly skinny, hole tubes one nanometer in diameter)—and (drum roll) graphene (found in 2004).

So what precisely is graphene? Peer inside a number of acquainted stable supplies (together with most metals) and you will find what’s generally known as a crystal lattice (one other title for a stable’s inside, crystalline construction): a number of atoms organized in a daily, endlessly repeating, three-dimensional construction a bit like an atomic climbing body, solely as an alternative of bars there are invisible bonds between the atoms that maintain them collectively. Diamond and graphite each have a three-dimensional construction, although it is utterly totally different: in diamond, the atoms are tightly bonded in three-dimensional tetrahedrons, whereas in graphite, atoms are bonded tightly in two-dimensional layers, that are held to the layers above and beneath by comparatively weak forces.

Diamond crystal structure based on strongly bonded tetrahedrons.Graphite crystal structure based on weakly linked hexagons.

Artworks: 1) Diamond has a powerful 3D (three-dimensional) crystal lattice primarily based on a repeating tetrahedron (left). The pink blobs are the carbon atoms and the grey traces are the bonds that be a part of them collectively. (Bonds are invisible, however we draw them like this so we will visualize them extra simply.) 2) Graphite has a a lot weaker construction primarily based on layers of tightly bonded hexagons. The layers are weakly joined to at least one one other by van der Waals forces (blue dotted traces—only some of that are proven for readability).

Graphene is a single layer of graphite. The exceptional factor about it’s that its crystalline construction is two-dimensional. In different phrases, the atoms in graphene are laid out flat, like billiard balls on a desk. Similar to in graphite, every layer of graphene is product of hexagonal “rings” of carbon (like a number of benzene rings related collectively, solely with extra carbon atoms changing the hydrogen atoms across the edge), giving a honeycomb-like look. For the reason that layers themselves are only one atom excessive, you’d want a stack of about three million of those layers to make graphene 1mm thick!

A crystal lattice of graphene, showing the 2D flat structure.

Paintings: Graphene has a flat crystal lattice produced from interlinked hexagons of carbon atoms (pink blobs) tightly bonded collectively (black traces).

Graphene or graphenes?

Folks discuss “graphene” the way in which they discuss “plastic,” nevertheless it’s necessary to keep in mind that scientists are engaged on many alternative sorts of graphene-based supplies (similar to there are numerous totally different sorts of plastics), all of that are a bit bit totally different and designed to do various things. On this article, I’ve adopted the conference of calling the fabric “graphene,” nevertheless it’s as nicely to keep in mind that this very new, fast-evolving substance has many alternative angles and elements—and the phrase graphene will finally come to consult with a really wide selection of various supplies. Sooner or later, it could be widespread to speak about “graphenes” the way in which we now communicate of “plastics.”

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What’s graphene like?

Individuals are discovering and inventing new supplies on a regular basis, however we seldom hear about them as a result of they’re usually not that fascinating. Graphene was first found in 2004, however what’s induced such pleasure is that its properties (the way in which it behaves as a cloth) are exceptional and thrilling. Briefly, it is super-strong and stiff, amazingly skinny, virtually utterly clear, extraordinarily gentle, and a tremendous conductor of electrical energy and warmth. It additionally has some extraordinarily uncommon digital properties.

Common properties

Graphene is an amazingly pure substance, thanks largely to its easy, orderly construction primarily based on tight, common, atomic bonding, Carbon is a nonmetal, so that you may count on graphene to be one too. The truth is, it behaves rather more like a metallic (although the way in which it conducts electrical energy could be very totally different), and that is led some scientists to explain it as a semimetal or a semiconductor (a cloth mid-way between a conductor and an insulator, comparable to silicon and germanium). Even so, it is as nicely to keep in mind that graphene is extraordinary—and fairly probably distinctive.

Energy and stiffness

For those who’ve ever scribbled with a tender pencil (one thing like a 4B), you will know that graphite is horribly tender. That is as a result of the carbon layers inside a stick of graphite shave off very simply. However the atoms inside these layers are very tightly bonded so, like carbon nanotubes (and in contrast to graphite), graphene is super-strong—even stronger than diamond! Graphene is believed to be the strongest materials but found, some 200 occasions stronger than metal. Remarkably, it is each stiff and elastic (like rubber), so you’ll be able to stretch it by a tremendous quantity (20-25 p.c of its authentic size) with out it breaking. That is as a result of the flat planes of carbon atoms in graphene can flex comparatively simply with out the atoms breaking up.

No-one is aware of fairly what to do with graphene’s super-strong properties, however one probably risk is mixing it with different supplies (comparable to plastics) to make composites which can be stronger and harder, but additionally thinner and lighter, than any supplies we’ve got now. Think about an energy-saving automotive with super-strong, super-thin, super-light plastic physique panels bolstered with graphene; that is the form of object we would envisage showing in a future turned the wrong way up by this wonderful materials!

Thinness and lightness

One thing that is just one atom thick is sure to be fairly gentle. Apparently, you could possibly cowl a soccer subject with a sheet of graphene weighing lower than a gram—though it is fairly unlikely anybody has truly tried! In line with my fast calculations, which means should you might cowl your entire United States with graphene, you’d solely want a mass of round 1500–2000 tons. Which may sound quite a bit, nevertheless it’s solely about as a lot as about 1500 vehicles—and it is utterly protecting one of many world’s greatest international locations!

Warmth conductivity

As if tremendous energy and featherweight lightness aren’t sufficient, graphene is healthier at carrying warmth (it has very excessive thermal conductivity) than another materials—higher by far than good warmth conductors comparable to silver and copper, and a lot better than both graphite or diamond. Once more, we’re almost definitely to find the good thing about that by utilizing graphenes in composite supplies, the place we might use them so as to add further heat-resistance or conductivity to plastics or different supplies.

Electrical conductivity

That is the place graphene begins to get actually fascinating! Supplies that conduct warmth very nicely additionally conduct electrical energy nicely, as a result of each processes transport power utilizing electrons. The flat, hexagonal lattice of graphene provides comparatively little resistance to electrons, which zip by it shortly and simply, carrying electrical energy higher than even excellent conductors comparable to copper and virtually in addition to superconductors (not like superconductors, which should be cooled to low temperatures, graphene’s exceptional conductivity works even at room temperature). Scientifically talking, let’s imagine that the electrons in graphene have an extended imply free path than they’ve in another materials (in different phrases, they will go additional with out crashing into issues or in any other case being interrupted, which is what causes electrical resistance). What use is that this? Think about a powerful, gentle, comparatively cheap materials that may conduct electrical energy with tremendously lowered power losses: on a big scale, it might revolutionize electrical energy manufacturing and distribution from energy crops; on a a lot smaller scale, it’d spawn moveable devices (comparable to cellphones) with for much longer battery life.

Digital properties

Nanotechnology computer research at Argonne National Laboratory.

Images: Advances in nanotechnology, together with the event of graphene, will drive quicker, smaller, cheaper computer systems. Image by courtesy of Argonne Nationwide Laboratory printed on Wikimedia Commons below a Inventive Commons Licence.

Electrical conductivity is nearly “ferrying” electrical energy from one place to a different in a comparatively crude trend; rather more fascinating is manipulating the move of electrons that carry electrical energy, which is what electronics is all about. As you may count on from its different wonderful skills, the digital properties of graphene are additionally extremely uncommon. First off, the electrons are quicker and rather more cellular, which opens up the potential of pc chips that work extra shortly (and with much less energy) than those we use in the present day. Second, the electrons transfer by graphene a bit like photons (wave-like particles of sunshine), at speeds shut sufficient to the pace of sunshine (about 1 million meters per second, in reality) that they behave in accordance with each the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, the place easy certainties are changed by puzzling chances. Meaning easy bits of carbon (graphene, in different phrases) can be utilized to check elements of these theories on the desk prime, as an alternative of by utilizing blisteringly costly particle accelerators or huge, highly effective area telescopes.

Optical properties

As a basic rule, the thinner one thing is, the extra probably it’s to be clear (or translucent), and it is easy to see why: with fewer atoms to battle, photons usually tend to penetrate by skinny objects than thick ones. (That is nothing like the entire story, nevertheless. The rationale why you’ll be able to see by thick glass however not very skinny metallic is kind of a bit extra complicated than this.) As you may count on, super-thin graphene, being just one atom thick, is nearly utterly clear; in reality, graphene transmits about 97–98 p.c of sunshine (in comparison with about 80–90 p.c for a primary, single pane of window glass). Making an allowance for that graphene can also be a tremendous conductor of electrical energy, you can begin to grasp why individuals who make photo voltaic panels, LCDs, and touchscreens are getting very excited: a cloth than combines wonderful transparency, excellent electrical conductivity, and excessive energy is an ideal start line for functions like these.


Sheets of graphene have such intently knit carbon atoms that they will work like super-fine atomic nets, stopping different supplies from getting by. Meaning graphene is helpful for trapping and detecting gases—nevertheless it may additionally have promising functions holding gases (comparable to hydrogen) that leak comparatively simply from typical containers. One of many drawbacks of utilizing hydrogen as a gas (in electrical vehicles) is the problem of storing it safely. Graphenes, probably, might assist to make fuel-cell vehicles working on hydrogen a extra viable prospect.

Alternatively, should you pepper tiny holes into graphene to make it porous, you get make a meshlike materials known as holey graphene that may work like {an electrical} semiconductor or a really positive, bodily sieve. Nonetheless very new, it is already beginning to discover thrilling functions in new types of power storage (comparable to supercapacitors) and water filters that might cut back strain on the planet by serving to us flip ocean water into secure, clear consuming water.

Illustration showing graphene and holey graphene compared

Paintings: Strange graphene (left) and porous, holey graphene (proper), which has a wide range of improved properties. Paintings courtesy of NASA.

How can we make graphene?

Reactive electron beam evaporator used to create a vapor for surface deposition.

Photograph: Vapor deposition is used to create a layer of graphene on one other floor (generally known as a substrate). Image by Warren Gretz courtesy of US Division of Power/Nationwide Renewable Power Laboratory (DOE/NREL).

Take a pencil and a few sticky tape. Stick the tape to the graphite, peel it away, and you will get a layer of graphite made up of a number of layers of carbon atoms. Repeat the method very rigorously, again and again, and you will (hopefully) find yourself with carbon so skinny that it will comprise only one layer of atoms. That is your graphene! This slightly crude technique goes by the technical title of mechanical exfoliation. An alternate technique includes loading up a super-precise atomic power microscope with a chunk of graphite after which rubbing it very exactly on one thing in order that single layers of graphene flake off, a bit like graphite from a pencil lead just one layer at a time. Strategies like this are fiddly and complicated and clarify why graphene is presently the most costly materials on the planet!

Laser vapor deposition apparatus.

Photograph: Vapor deposition equipment. Photograph by Maison Piedfort courtesy of US Navy.

These strategies are positive for making tiny check samples of graphene in a laboratory, however there is no means we might make graphene like this on the form of industrial scale on which it is prone to be required. So how do you make a number of graphene? One strategy is to place an natural (carbon-based) fuel comparable to methane right into a closed container with one thing like a chunk of copper within the backside, then monkey with the temperature and strain till a layer of graphene is fashioned on it. As a result of the graphene is fashioned by depositing layers of a chemical from a fuel (vapor), this technique is known as chemical vapor deposition (CVD). One other strategy includes rising crystals of graphene ranging from a carbon-rich stable, comparable to sugar. Lately, scientists have been experimenting with one other promising method, generally known as “flash joule heating,” to transform roughly any carbon-containing materials into graphene. Whereas not but prepared for prime time, it might show a major means of manufacturing graphene sooner or later.

How can we use graphene?

We will reply that query in not less than three other ways. First, as a result of graphene has so many glorious properties, and since all these properties most likely aren’t wanted in the identical materials (for a similar functions), it is smart to start out speaking about various kinds of graphene (and even totally different graphenes) which can be being utilized in other ways or being optimized for specific functions. So we’re prone to see some graphenes being developed for structural makes use of (in composites supplies), some being optimized to benefit from their extraordinary electron-carrying properties (to be used in digital parts), others the place we benefit from low-resistivity (in energy-saving energy techniques), and nonetheless others the place glorious transparency and electrical conductivity are the necessary issues (in photo voltaic cells and pc shows).

A 256MB flash memory integrated circuit chip.

Photograph: Pc reminiscence chips like this may turn into smaller and quicker if graphene replaces the silicon we presently use.

Second, we will see graphene as an thrilling substitute for current supplies which were pushed to their bodily limits. Silicon transistors (the switching units used as recollections and “decision-making” logic gates in computer systems), for instance, have constantly turn into smaller and extra highly effective over the previous couple of a long time, following a pattern generally known as Moore’s legislation, however pc scientists have lengthy expressed considerations that the identical price of progress cannot proceed as we strategy primary limitations imposed by the legal guidelines of physics. Some scientists are already imagining smaller and quicker transistors during which silicon is changed by graphene, taking pc units even nearer to absolutely the limits of physics. In idea, we might use graphene to make ballistic transistors that retailer data or swap on and off at super-high speeds by manipulating single electrons. In a lot the identical means, graphene might revolutionize different areas of know-how constrained by typical supplies. For instance, it might spawn lighter and stronger airplanes (by changing composite supplies or metallic alloys), cost-competitive and extra environment friendly photo voltaic panels (changing silicon once more), extra energy-efficient energy transmission tools (instead of superconductors), and supercapacitors with thinner plates that may be charged in seconds and retailer extra power in a smaller area than has ever beforehand been doable (changing peculiar, chemical batteries fully). Corporations comparable to Samsung, Nokia, and IBM are already growing graphene-based replacements for things like touchscreens, transistors, and flash recollections, although the work is at a really early stage.

Third, and most enjoyable of all, is the chance that we’ll develop all types of brand-new, presently unimaginable applied sciences that make the most of graphene’s wonderful properties. Within the twentieth century, plastics did not merely change older supplies comparable to metallic and wooden: for higher or worse, they utterly modified our tradition into one the place disposability and comfort overtook sturdiness. If graphenes lead us to ultra-light, ultra-thin, robust, clear, optically and electrically conducting supplies, who is aware of what potentialities may lie forward. How about super-lightweight garments product of graphenes, wired to batteries, that change colour on the flick of a swap? Or an emergency home constructed for catastrophe areas, with graphene partitions so robust and light-weight that you would be able to fold it up and carry it in a backpack?

Our graphene future?

Is it full-steam forward to a future the place graphene guidelines the world? Possibly—or possibly not. It is necessary to not get carried away with the hype: a lot of the thrilling work on graphene has thus far been carried out on a really small scale in chemical and physics laboratories. Many of the analysis continues to be what we might describe as “blue sky”: it may very well be a few years and even a long time earlier than it may be developed virtually, let alongside cost-effectively. By the identical token, it is nonetheless very early days for primary scientific analysis into graphene. Forgetting all of the wonderful functions for a second, there’s probably rather more thrilling science to emerge. For instance, we do not but know if graphene is the one materials with a two-dimensional crystal lattice—or if comparable however much more extraordinary supplies are simply ready to be found. One factor we do know is that this can be a very thrilling time for supplies science!

Who found graphene?

Black and white electron microscope photograph of aligned carbon nanotubes.

Images: The invention of carbon nanotubes in 1991 helped spur researchers on to supply the primary pattern of graphene in 2004. Image of aligned carbon nanotubes by Junbing Yang courtesy of Argonne Nationwide Laboratory printed on Flickr below a Inventive Commons Licence.

Scientists have been puzzling over graphene for many years. Again in 1947, Canadian physicist Philip Wallace wrote a pioneering paper concerning the digital behaviour of graphite that sparked appreciable curiosity within the subject. Nobel-Prize profitable chemist Linus Pauling was speculating about how flat, single layers of carbon atoms would behave as way back as 1960. In 1962, such supplies have been named “graphene” by German chemist Hanns-Peter Boehm, who had noticed them below his electron microscope the yr earlier than.

Theoretical analysis into graphene continued for the following 4 a long time, boosted within the Eighties and Nineties by the discoveries of fullerenes (successfully, graphene curled up into balls) and carbon nanotubes (graphene folded right into a pipe). Even so, no-one might ever truly make the stuff in apply; graphene was solely produced in a laboratory in 2004, by Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov working on the UK’s College of Manchester. They made graphene by utilizing items of sticky tape to tug off flakes of graphite, then folding the tape and pulling it aside to cleave the graphite into even smaller layers. Ultimately, after quite a lot of work, they have been amazed to seek out they’d some bits of graphite just one atom thick—graphene, in different phrases.

4 years later, the Manchester group managed to create a graphene transistor only one atom thick and ten atoms vast. The identical yr, employees at Rice College in the US constructed the primary graphene-based flash reminiscence. In recognition of the massive significance of their work, Geim and Novoselov have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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Analysis teams

It is a small however consultant number of establishments on the cutting-edge of graphene analysis world wide:


Introductions and common science


  • Graphene: Fabrication, Characterizations, Properties and Purposes by Hongwei Zhu et al (eds). Tutorial Press/Elsevier, 2018. What’s graphene, how do you make it, and what can you utilize it for—cutting-edge solutions to those questions on this up-to-date assortment of papers.
  • Graphene: Synthesis and Purposes by Wonbong Choi and Jo-won Lee (eds). CRC Press, 2016. Covers how graphene might be made and what it may be used for.
  • Graphene, Carbon Nanotubes, and Nanostructures: Strategies and Purposes by James E. Morris and Krzysztof Iniewski (eds). CRC Press, 2013. A set of latest analysis papers.
  • Graphene: Fundamentals and emergent functions by Jamie H. Warner et al. Newnes/Elsevier, 2012. A really nicely illustrated information that takes us from the most recent in graphene science to the most recent in graphene know-how—what is going to we do with it sooner or later?
  • Graphene and Its Fascinating Attributes by Swapan Okay. Pati, Toshiaki Enoki, C. N. R. Rao (eds). World Scientific, 2011. An introduction to the synthesis and scientific properties of graphene.
  • Carbon nanomaterials by Yury Gogotsi. CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2006. An introduction to nanotubes, fullerenes, and graphene.



  • Carbon Wonderland by Andre Geim and Philip Kim. Scientific American, April 2008, pp90–97. An important overview by two of the main graphene scientists. A straightforward-to-understand, non-technical overview.
  • Graphene: the proper atomic lattice 13 Sep 2011. A abstract of graphene pitched at an analogous “popular-science” stage as this text.
  • Why graphene is the stuff of the longer term by Andre Geim. New Scientist, 5 October 2010. A fast abstract of graphene’s potential.

Extra technical introductions

  • [PDF] Graphene: exploring carbon flatland by Andre Geim and Allan MacDonald. Physics Right now, August 2007. A way more detailed rationalization (chances are you’ll discover it too complicated if you do not have a physics diploma).
  • Graphene-Primarily based Supplies by Dan Li and Richard B. Kaner, Science, Vol. 320, No. 5880, Might 30, 2008, pp. 1170–1171.
  • Graphene: Standing and Prospects by A. Okay. Geim, Science, Vol. 324, No. 5934, June 19, 2009, pp. 1530–1534.


  • Graphene Made in a Flash From Trash by Charles Q. Choi. IEEE Spectrum, 5 February 2020. A brand new method guarantees to show any carbon-based materials into graphene.
  • 3D Printed Graphene Aerogel Gives Highest-Ever Capacitance for a Supercapacitor by Dexter Johnson. IEEE Spectrum. 23 October 2018. Graphene is again on monitor as the fabric of selection for making energy-dense supercapacitors.
  • Carbon Nanomaterials Might Push Copper Apart in Chip Interconnects by Dexter Johnson. IEEE Spectrum. 11 December 2017. Researchers discover if graphene might change “chunky” copper wires in tomorrow’s pc chips.
  • Graphene Composites Go Massive by Charles Q. Choi. IEEE Spectrum. 18 Might 2015. Graphene composites are super-strong and have glorious conductivity.
  • Bend It, Cost It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Materials of Tomorrow by Nick Bilton. The New York Instances. 13 April 2014. A great, accessible evaluation of graphene’s materials properties and business promise.
  • Is graphene actually a wonder-material? by David Shukman, BBC Information, 15 January 2013. Can graphene actually ship on the hype? Or would the massive sums of cash being pumped into researching it’s higher spent elsewhere?
  • Graphene: Patent surge reveals world race by David Shukman, BBC Information, 15 January 2013. The race is on to commercialize graphene.
  • Graphene supercapacitor breaks storage document: Physics World, November 26, 2010. How graphenes are enhancing the efficiency of energy-storing supercapacitors to the purpose the place they will compete with batteries.


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