Graphene, the real deal, no?

 image courtesy of  Fastcodesign.com

image courtesy of Fastcodesign.com

Two Russian scientists at the University of Manchester, Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, were playing with carbon graphite when they decided to see if they could make thinner layers of graphite, with the help of sticky Scotch tape. Geim and Novoselov used the tape to peel off a layer of graphite from its block and then repeatedly peeled off further layers from the original sticky tape until they managed to get down to flakes that were only a few atoms thick. They soon realized that by repeatedly sticking and peeling back the Scotch tape they could get down to the thinnest of all possible layers, one atom thick of carbon. Later, in 2010, the two scientists won the joint Nobel Prize in physics for their experiments. They renamed single atom graphite, graphene.

Explosives? What’s this? You see capacitors by definition accept charge rapidly (remember the socks on the carpet), but they also are famous for discharging electrical energy quickly (zapping your sister). Therein lays the twist. This will be one of the many hurdles for graphene as far as its accepted use in our world.
 Image courtesy of androidauthority.net

Image courtesy of androidauthority.net

You can make graphene, as Geim and Novoselov did, with sticky tape, or with the use of an old laser dvd. Cover the plastic dvd with graphite and let the laser 'set' the atoms in place, the procedure is all laid out for you on YouTube. Still, others are building factories for production of sheets of graphene. In fact, you aren't considered a legitimate new age company if you don't work with graphene.

Why the hullabaloo? Graphene, on its own, acts as a natural capacitor. It can take an electric charge, and hold that charge very quickly. Imagine an electric car or bicycle that can be fully charged in seconds. From there, it's not hard to see all kinds of applications-cellphones, laptops, solar energy- the list really is endless. And thus, the rush to invest in graphene has circled the globe.

At this point, we should remind ourselves, or learn, how and why materials can be electrically charged. When you rub two different insulating materials against each other, they become electrically charged. (Remember when you were kids and you rubbed your feet on the carpet, became electrically charged and waited for your evil sister to come around the corner to zap her? Oh, maybe that was just me). This only works for insulators. When the materials are rubbed (or an electric current applied) together, the material that loses electrons becomes positively charged. The material that gains electrons becomes negatively charged. A material that accepts a molecule or an electron becomes intercalated. Intercalation is the reversible inclusion or insertion of a molecule (or ion) into compounds with layered structures. Graphite (carbon in its many forms) acts as an insulator and has been used in electronics, batteries and the like for years. On its own graphene is a capacitor, able to take an electron charge quickly. I remember my Dad using capacitors as a kid on the downhole electronics he used to repair. Yes, he would store capacitors in the same area as the explosives that he used in his industry.

Explosives? What's this? You see capacitors by definition accept charge rapidly (remember the socks on the carpet), but they also are famous for discharging electrical energy quickly (zapping your sister). Therein lays the twist.  This will be one of the many hurdles for graphene as far as its accepted use in our world.

One certainly doesn't want an electric car that although charges quickly, then driving thru a lightning storm explodes (sparks), killing all passengers. Or a cell phone, that as you walk past a power transformer it explodes near your ear. For this reason, graphite historically has always been linked with a control layer in a battery (not capacitors) for public use, i.e. lithium-ion battery. Yes, batteries sacrifice a fast charge, but in return the world gets a much more stable energy source.

That's my simple take on this new age industry. I'm not an electrical or materials engineer, and maybe you are, and you can refute my arguments (accounting as above). I will say that graphene is an interesting discovery and has much potential as an electric source, also it has many other applications outside electronic use. Don't get me wrong, I am always on the side of entrepreneurs; I'm just not convinced two Russians playing with sticky tape qualifies. For decades electrical engineers have been dreaming of a capacitor/battery fusion.

Unfortunately, I'm reminded of the 'fuel cell' boom a decade or so ago, where everyone rushed to invest in new age 'fuel cell' technology (which really we used in industry since after WW2). Much of that investment was a loss and part of the reason-many automotive manufacturers had 'hat in hand' looking for a bailout from the US congress.

I'm taking a pass on investing in graphene, if I'm wrong I can always catch the next wave. A less risky wave.  Besides I have my own ideas on energy storage. An axiom I've learned in my life, when people, like lemmings, are lined up promoting these investments, it's time to go another direction.