Graphene has been called the plastic of the twenty-first century. The new material will probably find its way into sports equipment as early as this year.
Graphene, described as the world´s strongest material, is quickly making important inroads in many new technologies.
The history of graphene is a colourful one, according to the Finnish professor Jari Kinaret. The material was discovered decades ago, but the final breakthrough came in 2004, when researchers at the University of Manchester invented a simple method for extracting individual graphene flakes and proved that they had interesting physical properties.
In relation to its weight, graphene is up to 300 times stronger than steel. At the same time, graphene is flexible, light and transparent, and has excellent thermal and electrical conductivity.
"As graphene can be manufactured from almost any raw material that contains carbon, it can be considered a nearly infinite resource. It can be used to replace other rare materials in many applications. For example, indium, a fairly limited natural resource, is a common material in todyay´s touchscreens," says Kinaret.
By combining its many properties, graphene can be used to create new applications, such as flexible transparent electronics, new composite materials and novel types of batteries. The applications will mature at different times.
Among the first applications to appear will be composite materials in, for example, sports equipment – probably already this year – while the more demanding fast electronic applications will take years, perhaps even a decade, to achieve maturity. Somewhere between the two, battery technology and sensor technology products will make their appearance. At a later date, medical applications will enter the picture, says Kinaret.
He is heading a comprehensive graphene research project starting up in the autumn. The goal is to develop new graphene-based technologies and ensure that the results of European graphene research will benefit Europeans in the form of new products and jobs.
The study, co-ordinated by Calmers University of Technology, has been selected as the European Union's second flagship project. The project is set to receive E1-billion in funding over the next decade.
"We are involved in a work package led by Nokia in which we are developing graphene components and their manufacturing techniques from the perspective of flexibility and transparency and stretchability. The study covers every component used in mobile devices – from screens, energy storage and signal transmission to individual components such as solar cells, explains VTT Technical College of Finland senior scientist Sanna Arpianien.
VTT says the "cooperations that would be impossible to implement using other materials are quickly springing up around graphene". In Finland, certain equipment manufacturers are already benefiting from the increase in demand brought about by the graphene research project, says Arpianien
"Our close involvement in developing manufacturing technologies and applications ensures our future expertise. As a result, we will be able to give birth to new industry."