What Is Graphene? The Mind-boggling Wonder Material

By: Dave Roos & Austin Henderson  | 
Graphene sheets looks like an atomic-scale honeycomb. enot-poloskun/Getty Images

In recent years, there's been a lot of buzz around a supermaterial known as graphene. But what is graphene? Well, imagine a substance 200 times stronger than steel and yet 1,000 times lighter than paper.

Sound like science fiction? It's not — it's graphene.


Graphene’s Sticky Discovery

graphite to graphene
At Cabot Corporation, senior researcher Matt Hesketh examines the progression of graphene in three vials. The vial on the left is graphite, the middle vial is graphite expanded and the one on the right is graphene. John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In 2004, two scientists from the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were "playing" with graphite. Yes, the very same stuff found in the tip of your pencil. Curious about this material, they wondered if they could peel it down to a single layer. So, they reached for an unusual tool: sticky tape.

"You put [sticky tape] on graphite or mica and peel the top layer," Geim explained to the BBC. There are flakes of graphite that come off on your tape. Then you fold the tape in half and stick it to the flakes on top and split them again. And you repeat this procedure 10 or 20 times.


"Each time, the flakes split into thinner and thinner flakes. At the end you're left with very thin flakes attached to your tape. You dissolve the tape and everything goes into solution."

Surprisingly, the sticky-tape method worked wonders. This playful experiment led to the discovery of single-layer graphene flakes.

In 2010, Geim and Novoselov shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of graphene, a material made up of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice that resembles chicken wire.


Why Is Graphene Such a Big Deal?

low-cost semitransparent perovskite solar cells
Physics professor Dr. Yan Fung holds a new invention of low-cost semitransparent solar cells with graphene electrodes at Poly University in Hung Hom, China, 2015. David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

The Carbon Atom Connection

One of the main reasons graphene is such a marvel is because of its structure. A single layer of pristine graphene looks like a layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice structure. This atomic-scale honeycomb formation grants graphene its impressive strength.

Electrical Properties

Graphene is also an electrical superstar. It conducts electricity better than any other material at room temperature.


Remember those carbon atoms we talked about? Well, each of them has an extra electron called a pi electron. This electron moves freely, allowing it to transmit electrical conductivity across the multilayer graphene with almost no resistance.

This makes graphene the fastest conductor of electricity at room temperature.

The 'Magic Angle' and Superconductivity

Recent graphene research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered something almost magical: When you rotate two graphene layers slightly (just 1.1 degrees) out of alignment, graphene becomes a superconductor.

This means it conducts electricity with no resistance and no heat, opening up amazing possibilities for room-temperature superconductivity in the future.


Potential Uses for Graphene

Powering Up with Graphene

One of the most anticipated applications of graphene lies in batteries. Given the exceptional conductivity, we could produce graphene-based batteries that charge faster and last longer than our current lithium-ion ones.

Some big names like Samsung and Huwei are already on this trail, eager to bring such advancements to our everyday gadgets.


Other Graphene Innovations

  • Biosensors: Think of a thin chip that could be in your bloodstream monitoring health data or even communicating with your brain to detect potential health threats.
  • Photonics: By incorporating graphene, light-sensitive chips could greatly improve in sensitivity, revolutionizing photonic devices like cameras, medical imagery and more.
  • Water filtration: Graphene oxide, a derivative of graphene, shows promise in water purification. Whether it's removing contaminants or desalinating seawater, graphene might just be our future's clean water champion.


Taking Graphene From Labs to Our Lives

By 2024, we can expect a range of graphene products on the market, according to Andrea Ferrari, director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, who is also the science and technology officer for the Graphene Flagship, a 1-billion-euro collaboration by the European Union to speed the development of graphene technology.

Research partners with the Flagship are already making graphene batteries that outperform today's best high-energy cells by 20 percent capacity and 15 percent energy. Other teams have built graphene-based solar cells that are 20 percent more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity.


While there are some early products already tapping into graphene's potential, such as sports equipment by the company Head, the best is yet to come. And as Ferrari mentions, "We say graphene, but we're really talking about a large number of options that are being explored. Things are moving in the right direction."

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.