Jan. 22 - Researchers at Britain's University of Manchester believe their work on graphene, a material they call 'the wonder material of the 21st Century', will change the way we live. Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel but extremely lightweight and can conduct heat and electricity more efficiently than any other comparable material. Ivor Bennett reports.
It's where science fiction meets science fact. A material 200 times stronger than steel - yet so light, even a block of its powder can balance on a flower. Graphene is the first wonder material of the 21st century - and it's expected to transform almost every aspect of life. Aravind Vijayaraghavan leads the graphene research team at Manchester University. SOUNDBITE (English) DR ARAVIND VIJAYARAGHAVAN, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, SAYING: "It's the strongest material in the world, it's the thinnest material, it's bendable, stretchable, transparent, super light. The best conductor of heat the best conductor of electricity. It's not just one thing that makes it amazing. But it's the fact that it's all these things rolled into one." From condoms to cancer therapy, bendable touchscreens to batteries that'll charge planes in seconds - graphene's potential is practically limitless. There's even talk of desalination. Tennis players are some of the first to benefit - Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both now play with racquets made from a graphene composite. A carbon lattice just a single atom thick - graphene is the first ever man-made material in 2 dimensions. It comes from graphite - itself made up of layer upon layer of graphene. Isolating a single sheet wasn't done until 2004 by scientists at Manchester University - a feat that won them the Nobel Prize. In a tiny flake like this there are enough layers of graphene to cover a tennis court, maybe even a football pitch. But the fact it's that thin also makes it extremely difficult to handle. SOUNDBITE (English) DR ARAVIND VIJAYARAGHAVAN, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, SAYING: "Think of clingfilm. If you try to handle that, you're already facing a nightmare. It gets everywhere, it crinkles up, it sticks to everything. It's the same thing apart from think of something a million times thinner." It's a problem that means largescale production is still between 10 and 20 years away. Electrolysis is one option - driving lithium ions into graphite to push the layers of graphene apart. The process can be upscaled - but businesses are still wary of investing at such an early stage. According to Professor Ian Kinloch, it's a common problem, even for a discovery that could change the world. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR IAN KINLOCH, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, SAYING: "You have this massive interest where everyone is really excited about the material. where everyone is throwing money and ideas, and press are talking about it, and it goes like that. But then you realise there are actually a number of challenges as we've discussed to get it to the marketplace. and there's a dip, and they call this a valley of death." The National Graphene Institute's being built to help bridge that gap - Britain and the EU investing 60 million pounds between them. So far it only has one major industrial partner. But with close to 10-thousand patents worldwide already, there's no doubting graphene's potential. It's merely a question of when the gold rush begins.