Imagine if you could charge your cellphone's battery in under a minute ... with graphene, it's a theoretical possibility.

G

raphene’s list of incredible achievements closely resembles the intro to Superman. It can conduct electricity as well as copper, it can conduct heat like nothing else, and it’s almost completely transparent.

It might sound like science fiction, but it’s not. Graphene has already garnered the attention of researchers the world over; now the public is starting to get excited, and for good reason.

Battery charging Imagine fully charging your electric car's battery in less time than it takes to buy groceries. With graphene, it's possible.

What is it?

Graphene is, in essence, a direct relative of the graphite inside a standard pencil tip. Graphene refers to an atom-thick, two-dimensional sheet of graphite (itself a cluster of carbon atoms). The carbon atoms themselves are arranged in a hexagon shape, so when you see a physical representation of graphene somewhere, it more or less resembles a wall made of hexagons. These hexagons aren’t filled; rather, the center of each hexagon is open, making graphene a porous sheet, allowing some molecules to pass through.

Graphene is light. Very light, in fact – a square-meter sheet of graphene weighs less than a milligram. That’s the weight of a single snowflake. That very same sheet, while being incredibly light, is also theoretically capable of supporting the weight of a small animal. If your mind isn’t blown yet, well, you probably already knew about graphene before reading this.

What can it do?

Theoretically speaking, it can do a whole hell of a lot. At a range no larger than a meter, it could be used as the base material for a wireless antenna that is capable of sending data at a rate not yet experienced. Operating at a speed measured in terabits, you could receive an entire hard drive’s worth of information in a matter of seconds. 

It’s not just data transmission that will benefit from graphene. Imagine if you could charge your cellphone’s battery in under a minute, or charge an electric car in less time than it takes to drive to the grocery store. With graphene, it’s a theoretical possibility. By utilizing a simple DVD burner, researchers have been able to print small, flexible capacitors that could bring about a new wave of battery and screen technology. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, the screen technology might be of interest to you; imagine having an actual copy of the Daily Prophet on your lap, complete with moving pictures built right into the paper.

Desalination
With graphene, providing freshwater to the entire world isn't just a pipe dream.

If you’re more interested in saving the world, don’t worry, graphene can help with that, too. With the correct size of sheet, researchers have found that a single layer of graphene is capable of filtering salt from water, creating a very small and very effective method of desalination. If the theory is able to be brought into practice, this could provide freshwater to millions, if not billions of people.

Why isn’t it doing that now?

There’s a large gap between theory and practice. So far, the best we’ve been able to do is produce experiments on a very small scale, because it’s both expensive and difficult to get graphene to behave how we want it to.

We’re very much in the research and development phase still. As more research money gets dumped into graphene-related programs, we’ll start seeing innovations in terms of how graphene is constructed. Many of the widespread uses for graphene will need years, if not a decade, to get to consumers. For example, graphene is still too unstable and unreliable for use in computers, despite how promising its use in batteries can be.

Currently, there are several ways that graphene can be constructed, almost all of which involve toxic chemicals that are dangerous for both handlers and the environment. Even if the chemicals work correctly and graphene is produced, it only functions well when its structure is perfect. This presents another issue, as a flat sheet of graphene will often contain structural defects or impurities.

Clearly, it still has a ways to go before it’s ready for the mainstream, but big-name companies are starting to get involved in the process, and their large supplies of R&D money will certainly come in handy. Until it can be produced in a cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly manner, it remains just outside our grasp.