What to expect from graphene in the future

10 Aug 2023

Image: © Sashkin/Stock.adobe.com

The extremely strong, thin and versatile material could shake up various sectors, with research into self-charging wearables and various applications in space.

The graphene market looks set to surge in the coming years, as researchers discover various new applications for the powerful ‘wonder material’.

Graphene is considered to be one of the world’s thinnest and strongest materials, being a one-atom-thick layer of carbon that is 200 times stronger than steel. The material is also extremely flexible and conductive, giving it a wide range of potential applications.

The EU committed €1bn in funding to support research into this powerful material. This initiative – called Graphene Flagship – will celebrate its 10-year anniversary at a conference later this year, which will give an industry perspective and share some of the latest graphene prototypes.

A report from IDTechEx suggests that after a decade of research, graphene is beginning to move out of the lab and “into the market”, with evidence that the material is being adopted more rapidly for applications such as anti-corrosion coatings, smartphone components and composites for vehicles.

While the potential uses of graphene are vast, let’s take a look at some of the most exciting ways graphene could be used in the future.

Graphene in space

Given the strength and versatility of graphene, it is probably unsurprising that it is being considered for a variety of uses in the space sector.

Research has been ongoing in this sector for years. In 2017 and 2018, the Graphene Flagship tested the potential for graphene to improve the performance of loop heat pipes and thermal management systems in spacecraft and satellites.

The experiments also looked at how graphene could be used in space propulsion due to its lightweight nature and strong interaction with light. Both of these experiments showed “extremely promising results”, according to a report by the US National Reconnaissance Office.

A recent paper published in the open access journal Nanomaterials suggests graphene’s unique properties makes it the potential “material of choice” in dealing with space environments, with applications in satellite manufacturing, radiation shielding, fuel propellants, life support systems and more.

However, the report also highlights that more work is needed in terms of research and in scaling up the production of different types of graphene.

“Graphene is expected to help in reaching very soon the technological levels needed to increase the exploration of the solar system and beyond, and to establish and maintain sites on the Moon, Mars, and other planetary bodies,” the report said.

“In order to make such ambitious endeavours feasible, not only is the rapid development of graphene-based technologies needed, but so is the additional support of the related space economy.”

Last year, scientists in Ireland claimed to develop a low-cost method to produce graphene, which could accelerate the production of electronic components that contain the wonder material.

Self-charging wearables

The wearables sector is one that continues to grow rapidly, according to recent reports. The International Data Corporation claims India’s wearables market grew by more than 53pc so far this year, shipping 57.8m units in the first half of 2023.

As many wearable products require a degree of flexibility, researchers have looked to graphene as a way to enhance future devices in this sector.

Last year, researchers in Sweden claimed to achieve high conductivity for a type of graphene that is manufactured in a simpler and cheaper method. They said this research could lead to a “new era” of flexible electronics such as portable energy-harvesting devices, electronic skin and new wearable devices.

Recent research also suggests graphene could lead to a future of self-charging wearables. A team from China’s Sichuan University claimed to have created a form of graphene textile that can convert and store energy from the body’s movement.

“The integrated power textile can provide an efficient route for sustainable working of wearable electronics,” the researchers said in the study.

Carbon capture

With the climate crisis being a looming threat for the future, researchers have also turned to the wonder material for ways to improve our sustainability.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences claimed to have created a method of carbon storage through graphene.

Most concepts of carbon capture involve the trapping carbon dioxide and then storing it so it doesn’t impact the atmosphere. But the method in this study involved a form of “artificial photosynthesis”, or producing chemicals and fuels from carbon dioxide.

The researchers claim to have developed a form of graphene and silicon carbide catalysts, which are used to efficiently turn carbon dioxide into ethanol. The team said this method was “at least two orders of magnitude higher” in terms of performance than other state-of-the-art catalysts used for artificial photosynthesis.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic