Last year, Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) announced that it would begin producing its own line of residential and commercial battery systems as well as conduct scientific research into battery technology in order to improve the energy efficiency of its electric cars. One of the most exciting aspects of this research is the potential use of graphene, a unique configuration of carbon atoms that forms a two-dimensional layer like a honeycomb. Other configurations of carbon include graphite, diamonds, bucky balls and charcoal.
Graphene is lauded as a ‘miracle’ material, with a strength estimated to be 100 times stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight. Historically, this material was very difficult and expensive to produce, and was used primarily in niche uses within the semiconductor industry. In fact, it was not isolated until 2004. Today, however, new and easier ways to produce large amounts of graphene are being tested, and the array of possible uses has the potential to be disruptive across a number of industries.
Tesla is among a large number of corporations and universities researching how graphene can be used to solve the problem of battery size and efficiency. Employing graphene to battery cells can greatly improve the ability and speed to recharge and discharge compared to today’s contemporary technology, charging up to 10 times faster than a lithium-ion battery. Graphene can also shrink the size of batteries by greatly improving the energy density. The combination of a faster charging, smaller battery will be a huge improvement for consumer electronics, mobile devices and electric vehicles. (For related reading, see: New Battery Technology Investment Opportunities.)
Graphene is not only useful in battery energy, but also can improve the current state of photovoltaic solar panels. The reflection of some of the sun’s rays at the surface of solar panels is a big problem today, since shading them in any way would also reduce the amount of energy they can produce. Adding a layer of graphene serves as an anti-reflective coating that allows most of the light’s energy to pass through to be converted into electricity. Research has shown that graphene can reduce reflectivity by 15 – 35%.
Transistors are the on-off logic gates that power microchips, and sparked the computer revolution. Today, Moore’s Law has predicted that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip will double every 18 months, and the predication has come to fruition so far. Technology is now pushing the limits of silicon as a substrate to build semiconductors, which means Moore’s Law may no longer hold. Graphene may be a replacement for silicon to allow even greater transistor density. Researchers at MIT and elsewhere are looking at how to actualize a graphene-based microchip. (For more, see also: Top Emerging Fields in Mobile Technology.)
Medical uses for graphene include tissue engineering. Three-dimensional printing and other methods of growing organs relies on a sturdy matrix upon which to grow cells. Adding graphene nano-particles to existing materials has been shown to improve its structural sturdiness.
Graphene has been shown to be taken up by specific cells including cancer cells, making it a potential vector for targeted drug delivery. Experiments are currently underway to see if it can be used to treat lung cancer. The substance has also been shown to enhance polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the method used to sequence genomes and identify genes.
The Bottom Line
Graphene is a word that we will likely be hearing more and more as researchers from around the world begin to study this unique carbon-based material. Aside from the above, there are a slew of proposed alternative uses for graphene. These include using it as a lubricant, to detect infrared light, to develop wearable electronics, as a water filtration technology and as a waterproof coating. In the coming years, even more potential use cases are sure to be identified and put into production.