It’s strong, it’s flexible, and it’s here. After a long time cooking in the labs, the first graphene-based products are beginning to trickle out into the world of smartphones, wearables, batteries, virtual reality, sports equipment, super-capacitors and supercars.
Graphene is a material that some believe has been coerced from abandoned space ships, left on Earth by extraterrestrials years ago. While that’s a little unlikely, the power of this super-thin, strong, conductive and all-round amazing material is deserving of such a conspiracy.
It’s been over 60 years coming as scientists and manufacturers alike have struggled to harness the power of this awesome material, but it’s closing in on revolutionizing so many things we’re using day to day.
We’ve recently updated this page with 10 more ways that graphene is about to change your life, as seen on display at MWC 2018 in Barcelona. Want to learn more about graphene and its future uses? Check out our feature, Why is graphene taking so long?
UV-tracking graphene patch
UV-protective clothing that lets through a fraction of the sun’s harmful rays to your skin is now common, but what if your clothes could actually tell you when your skin has had enough UV radiation? That’s the idea behind this ultra-thin and flexible sensor. “You stick it directly on your skin, or to your swimming shorts, or it could be integrated into clothes,” says Professor Frank Koppens from ICFO (The Institute of Photonic Sciences), Barcelona. “It measures the UV index and sends an alarm to your phone when you need to get out of the sun.” Currently in the process of being miniaturized, in the future this patch will be even smaller, and be completely transparent.
Smart insole monitoring for athletes
Graphene is also making great strides in smart footwear. Real-time pressure-sensing socks and insoles aren’t new, but mostly such products have just a few pressure sensors built into them. This prototype has well over 100. Able to measure exactly where your feet is striking the sole, lightweight graphene-embedded foam responds to variations in pressure – and at exacting milligram level. “I can get a qualitative number on how much every point of my foot is exerting on the sole, and present mapping of shoe pressure, all within a smartphone app,” says Yarjan Abdul Samad from the Cambridge Graphene Center at the University of Cambridge.
Cool graphene shoes
Graphene boasts excellent heat conductivity, so where better to put it than in a hot, stinky place? In this prototype of a graphene shoe developed by the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, BeDimensional and Tuscan shoemaker Fadel, graphene flakes are added to polyurethane. The end result is a shoe that dissipates 50% more heat than when the shoe is made just with polyurethane. This is a great way to understand the value of graphene in the manufacturing process; it’s usually an addition to, rather than a replacement for, existing materials. Even more astounding is that these graphene shoes are just 1% graphene.
The world’s most efficient solar cell
Could graphene help us capture solar energy more efficiently? The early signs are good, with the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia using graphene to create large solar cells from perovskite (inorganic crystals). “The graphene is used to increase the efficiency, and to increase the stability of the solar cell,” said Beatriz Martín-García from the IIT, who told TechRadar that although it doesn’t last as long as a solar cell made from silicon, the graphene-infused version is already four times cheaper to manufacture. That’s just as important a factor in graphene’s potential impact as its ‘magical’ qualities.
Graphene brain-computer interfaces
Graphene’s flexibility means it can be used in brain implants that record and stimulate brain signals on the surface of the brain. “Graphene is enabling a new generation of less-invasive neural implants,” says Professor Dr. Jose A Garrido, ICREA Research Professor at ICN2. “It can be easily integrated into flexible substrates, it has a very high signal-to-noise ratio so retains a very high quality electrical signal, and it also minimizes the use of cables.” Garrido’s work at the ICN2 Speech Centre Stimulation and BrainCom is focusing on providing a communication path to patients with severe speech disabilities (such as strokes and motor neuron disease) by mapping the region of the brain correlated to pronouncing speech.
Graphene cryo-cooler compressor for 5G
Mobile antennas and receivers need more and more cooling the higher the data throughput, or else they overheat. So the massive increase in data throughput required in 5G base stations is something of a conundrum for the telecoms industry. Cue this miniaturized cooling pump to take electronic systems down to cryogenic temperatures. “We have developed a small compressor based on graphene that’s about a tenth of the size of what can be done with other materials,” explains Lars Lundgren at APR Technologies AB, Sweden. With no moving parts and with graphene in every other layer, it generates the pressure needed to cool down base stations to about to -150 degrees Celsius, the 5G signal stays stable. Ericsson and Nokia are involved.
First reported in March 2014, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa killed over 11,000 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali and the US. So how do we stop the next one? Graphene photodetectors, that’s how.
The problem during an outbreak is that blood tests take days, and people in places like airports and city centers need to be tested immediately. Created by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden to work with a tiny drop of blood, this sensing platform is based on silicon photonics and graphene photodetectors that find specific molecular pairs in the infrared spectrum. It essentially identifies the molecular fingerprint of a specific disease. That’s something that can already be done in labs, but graphene makes it mobile, and really low-cost because it uses the same silicon chip production processes already used for smartphone chips. The detector attaches to a smartphone and confirms whether someone has a disease within 10 minutes.
Although graphene was discovered at the University of Manchester, research into its potential uses has gone global, with science labs in China filing more patents than any other country. So it’s perhaps no surprise that one of China’s leading consumer electronic brands is among the first to embrace graphene in its products. Xiaomi’s Mi Pro HD earphones are just its latest product to feature graphene, though it’s unclear of its exact role. All Xiaomi will say is that it contains a ’25-step process’ graphene dual-diaphragm ‘to retain the rich details and to keep the low notes mellow’. The graphene diaphragm is ‘more ductile under high frequencies, producing sounds that are rich, sharp, and crystal clear’ and ‘conducts 100% of the electrical signals passed through them’. Xiaomi also sells the A10 Ultra-thin PMA Graphene Smart Therapy Belt, which uses graphene-infused fabric.
In aviation, weight is everything, and that means huge fuel costs. Most passenger airlines carry enough fuel not only to support the weight of the aircraft and passengers, but also the weight of the fuel itself. So it’s no surprise that people like Sir Richard Branson think that all aircraft will be constructed from super-light graphene within a decade. Much lighter and much stronger than the carbon fibre composites presently used, graphene has been attracting the attentions of Airbus, which is a member of the Graphene Flagship research group, and held a symposium on graphene innovations last year.
Graphene phone cases
Smartphone cases with built-in batteries for that extra top up just haven’t caught on, but the problem of quickly draining phone batteries persists, particularly for power-users. Cue NanoCase for the iPhone X, the iPhone 8/8 Plus, and the iPhone 7/7 Plus, which contains a graphene panel that dissipate excess heat inside the phone quickly. Doing so extend the battery life of a phone by up to 20%, claim NanoCase’s makers. However, it’s only going to help you if you’re the kind phone user who intensively uses their phone so much that it gets hot. Gamers, take note.