Graphene might be one of the world's most useful materials. Though it is only one carbon atom thick, it is 200 times stronger than steel, and highly flexible to boot.
Ever since it was first isolated by researchers in 2004, the list of patents involving graphene has grown exponentially every year. It may not be long before this supermaterial spawns a technological revolution that could truly change the world.
Here are 10 profound graphene inventions to look forward to in the near future.
Fuel from the air
The same researchers who won the Nobel Prize for isolating graphene, Andre Geim of Manchester University and colleagues, have shown that graphene could be used to make mobile electric generators powered by hydrogen extracted from the air. Geim's team discovered that although graphene is impermeable to even the smallest of atoms, it can be used to sieve hydrogen atoms that are stripped of their electrons.
This means graphene films could be used to vastly improve the efficiency of proton-conducting membranes, which are essential components of fuel-cell technology. Geim imagines a future in which vehicles could be powered just by the tiny amounts of hydrogen in ambient air. "Essentially, you pump your fuel from the atmosphere and get electricity out of it," Geim said.
Graphene could help solve the world water crisis. Membranes made from graphene can be big enough to let water through, but small enough to filter out the salt. In other words, graphene could revolutionize desalination technology. MIT researchers have found "that the water permeability of this material is several orders of magnitude higher than conventional reverse osmosis membranes, and that nanoporous graphene may have a valuable role to play for water purification."
In fact, a type of graphene has proven so effective at water filtration that it rendered water samples from Sydney Harbor safe to drink after passing through the filter just once. In a 2018 study, researchers with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) used a form of graphene called "Graphair" to make the seawater drinkable after a single treatment.
"This technology can create clean drinking water, regardless of how dirty it is, in a single step," CSIRO scientist Dong Han Seo said in a statement. "All that's needed is heat, our graphene, a membrane filter and a small water pump. We're hoping to commence field trials in a developing-world community next year."
Forget Silicon Valley; the future may rest in Graphene Valley. Today our electronic devices rely on silicon as a key component, but transistors made of silicon are approaching the minimum size at which they can be effective, which means the speed of our devices will soon bottom out. Yet the ultra-thin nature of graphene could be the answer to this problem. It may not be long before graphene replaces silicon in our electronic devices, making them faster than ever before.
Graphene will also make it possible to build super thin, flexible touchscreens that would be virtually unbreakable. You'll never have to worry about shattering your smartphone again.
In 2018, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University revealed that graphene can have even more surprising electronic properties. It can be tuned to behave at two electric extremes: as an insulator or a superconductor. In other words, the same material can either block the flow of electrons or conduct an electrical stream without resistance.
"We can now use graphene as a new platform for investigating unconventional superconductivity," says Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, an associate professor of physics at MIT, in a statement. "One can also imagine making a superconducting transistor out of graphene, which you can switch on and off, from superconducting to insulating. That opens many possibilities for quantum devices."
The classic sci-fi action film "Predator" features an alien assassin that has the ability to see the world in thermal infrared. Now, thanks to graphene, you might also be able to have Predator vision. Researchers from the University of Michigan have developed a graphene contact lens that allows its wearer to sense the whole infrared spectrum — plus visible and ultraviolet light.
"If we integrate it with a contact lens or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," said Zhaohui Zhong, one of the researchers developing the technology. "It provides you another way of interacting with your environment."
A better condom
Graphene may even have the ability to improve your sex life. Condoms made from graphene can be super-thin, which means more sensation. They would also be super-strong, which means they're less likely to break — the true test of any condom.
"If this project is successful, we might have a use for graphene which will touch our everyday life in the most intimate way," said Aravind Vijayaraghavan, the materials scientist leading research into graphene condoms, in 2013.
The quest for a graphene condom has been slower than some advocates expected, but it's still going. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made waves in 2013 when it funded research on graphene condoms, and while that effort has languished a bit, it has shown enough promise to earn additional funding. In the meantime, at least one company has jumped on the bandwagon with a "graphene-inspired condom," which doesn't actually use graphene but borrows its hexagonal structure.
A world without rust
Because graphene is virtually impermeable, a coat of graphene-based paint could one day be used to eradicate corrosion and rust. Researchers have even shown that glassware or copper plates covered with graphene paint can be used as containers for strongly corrosive acids.
"Graphene paint has a good chance to become a truly revolutionary product for industries that deal with any kind of protection either from air, weather elements or corrosive chemicals,” said Rahul Nair, one of the researchers developing the technology. “Those include, for example, medical, electronics and nuclear industry or even shipbuilding, to name but the few."
Glowing walls could soon replace the light bulb, thanks to the development of new graphene-based electrode technology that makes displays thinner than ever before. Such glowing "wallpaper" provides more pleasant, adjustable light across a room than light bulbs can, and it can also be made more energy-efficient. And, let's face it, few things seem more futuristic than illuminated "Tron"-like walls.
"By using graphene instead of conventional metal electrodes, components of the future will be much easier to recycle and thereby environmentally attractive," said Nathaniel Robinson of Linköping University, where the tech is being developed.
If you feel overly integrated with your technology already, you ain't seen nothing yet. Graphene research is now leading to experiments where electronics can integrate with your biological systems. Basically, it may soon be possible to be implanted with graphene gadgets that can read your nervous system or talk to your cells.
This could lead to breakthroughs in medical science, helping doctors monitor your body or even adjust your biological systems for optimal health. The technology could also help fitness fanatics track and monitor their workout regimens.
Better, safer hair dyes
This photo shows blond hairs before (left) and after (right) being dyed by a graphene-based pigment, whose structural model is also pictured on the right. (Photo: Chong Luo/Cell Press)
This may not change the world quite as much as some other applications, but graphene has also shown promise as a safer alternative to toxic hair dyes. In a 2018 study, researchers from Northwestern University report that graphene can not only match the performance of permanent hair dyes, but it can do so without any organic solvents or toxic molecular ingredients. On top of that, it can offer enhanced antibacterial, antistatic and thermal-dissipation properties to hair.
The researchers sprayed a graphene-oxide gel onto blond human hair and let it dry for 10 minutes. The strands of hair were coated in a graphene film just 2 microns thick, which reportedly stayed in place even after 30 washes. The antistatic properties could offer further aesthetic benefits, and the coating should cause no harm to your hair or health, the study's authors say.
"This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn't sound very big and noble when we started working on it," says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern, in a statement. "But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it's one that graphene could really help to solve."
Given how thin and strong graphene is, it seems inevitable that it should also be used to build improved bulletproof vests. Sure enough, researchers have found that sheets of graphene absorbed twice as much impact as Kevlar, the material commonly used in bulletproof vests. Also an improvement over Kevlar, graphene is super-lightweight and therefore less restrictive to wear. The breakthrough could help keep our soldiers and law enforcement officers safe when being fired at. The thin nature of graphene could even lead to developments in other bulletproof surfaces, such as windows.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was published in December 2014.