but there are some materials that are so thin they are almost completely flat. They belong to a family of materials that we call 'nanomaterials' and they behave in fundamentally different ways to normal 3D materials, giving them special, sometimes incredible, properties.
One of these nanomaterials is graphene.
The 'lead' in a pencil is actually a form of carbon called graphite. In graphite, sheets of carbon are loosely stuck to one another. It’s possible to separate these sheets – after all, that’s how a pencil makes a mark on paper. If you could take just one layer in a sheet of graphite and separate it, you’d have a material called graphene. It’s is the thinnest, strongest, stiffest and most conductive material known to science, and one of the most amazing materials that we’ve ever created.
Graphene was first isolated in 2004 using a regular roll of sticky tape. Scientists used the sticky tape to pull stacked layers of graphite apart until there was only one layer remaining – a layer that was just a single atom thick. Since then, other techniques to isolate graphene have been developed. These include using soapy water – employing the same chemistry used to wash dishes – and growing graphene in very hot ovens using gases that contain carbon.
Graphene's hexagonal pattern of carbon atoms, and the bonds between the atoms, make it the strongest material we’ve ever created. A 1m2 sheet of graphene can support the weight of a cat – yes, cats are pretty light but remember, graphene is only one atom thick. Not only is it strong, it’s also extremely light and even elastic. You can bend or deform a sheet of graphene to massive extremes and it will just bounce back into shape, undamaged.
An electric charge is carried through materials by electrons – subatomic particles that whiz around the nuclei of atoms. Graphene is an extremely good electrical conductor. The flat, two-dimensional sheets confine electrons in such a way that allows them to travel really fast, resulting in very mobile electrons. It's also great at transporting heat efficiently, it is the most impermeable material known to science (meaning fluids can’t pass through it) and although it looks almost transparent it’s actually absorbing 2% of the light that passes through it. This is a huge amount for such a thin material.
From the stone age to our silicon enabled information age, human civilisation has expanded in tandem with the adoption of the most advanced materials available. In the future, nanomaterials will help shape the world around us and we’re just getting started with graphene. It could for instance, eventually be used to build aircraft. Because it’s so light and so strong, it could lead to huge savings in fuel.
Unbelievably strong, brilliant at conducting electricity, elastic and could change the world around us. It's pretty obvious why we call graphene a wonder material.