Graphene is a form of carbon that could bring us bulletproof armor and space elevators, improve medicine, and make the internet run faster — some day. For the past 15 years, consumers have been hearing about this wonder material and all the ways it could change everything. Is it really almost here, or is it another promise that is perpetually just one more breakthrough away?
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it may not look like it but I'm creating one of the strongest and most versatile materials on earth graphene you've probably heard buzz about it graphene made big waves back in 2004 and it's knocked around science news ever since a global race for graphene you know it's not just limited to one little thing to a lot of mind-blowing technology but that was almost 15 years ago where are all of the graphene wonders that we were promised the bulletproof armor the graphene circuitry the ultralight airplanes the graphene medicine a space elevator so the next time man walks on the moon maybe he'll take the elevator to get there clearly lots of the buzz never went anywhere but graphene does exist Engineers have gone from making one Fleck at a time to producing it by the barrel full do you want to try to pick it up sure so the graphene revolution we were promised may already be in motion you can stretch and pull on it and in fact a good way to visualize it is that if you've had a big enough sheet of pure graphene you could hold up a soccer ball on just one atomic layer and that's insane Joseph Meany is an analytical chemist who co-authored a book about the promise of graphene he explained to us that graphene is just carbon like coal or graphite or diamond the difference is in how the carbon atoms are bonded together and in the unique shape that the material takes so it's just a single atom sheet there's no Z dimension to speak of in graphene and these atoms of carbon are arranged in interlocking or tessellated hexagons kind of like a chicken wire the bonds between the carbon atoms are actually extremely strong back in 2004 researchers in the UK discovered that they could produce graphene with some shockingly simple tools a hunk of a particular type of graphite and some standard-issue tape yeah it was just a very large hunk that you could hold in your hand and they took the tape and put it down on to the surface of the graphite and just lifted it off from there they used chemicals to dissolve away the tape and they were left with tiny flakes of graphene with remarkable properties it's impossibly light yet incredibly strong it's flexible and it's a highly efficient conductor of electricity the researchers won a Nobel Prize in 2010 and today in 2018 literally everything around us is built or enhanced with graphene okay not quite I think it's very easy for the media for the press to seize on any new scientific or technological development as something that's going to be transformative you know scientists come up with these amazing new materials and then everything changes and of course it never really happens that way Philip ball is a reporter who's written a bunch about the graphene hype machine and I asked him to throw some cold water on the story hey is this Philip ball yeah hi hey doing the Sakura calling from the verge hi Cori of course with any new technology it the reality is it generally takes years to develop it it would be unreasonable to expect graphene to transform our lives overnight the uphill battle for any new material is that it can't just be better than existing technology it has to be much better Philip says that's the issue with graphene replacing silicon and electronics there are companies who are exploring his use has a conductive electronic material but of course we already have such materials and graphene has really got to have big advantages over what we have already if it's going to displace what is already a well-established mature technology but that's not to say that graphene hasn't gone anywhere in 15 years we found some engineers who are making materials of graphene today materials that could one day even end up in spaceships the company is Verbeck materials and their president John Leto showed me how far they've come with graphene mass production and she gave us a free sample literally just like floating in the vial and so if you open that up you can take add this is a bag of about 1.5 kilograms of graphene fits in a 30 gallon container so it's very like sort of very voluminous in its sort of raw raw state war Beck is introducing its manufactured graphene powder to all sorts of industrial and consumer products like RFID tags clothing and even a rubber so you take the graphene you blend it into into rubber and rubber they use sort of big blenders almost that beat the rubber around mix the graphene into it and what you get by mixing the graphene with the rubber is very high temperature capabilities and also very high strength thinking about an application for this you talk about spaceships right right you're going through extremely high temperature – extremely cold temperature in outer space you don't want rubber that would expand and contract and lose its strength over time exactly this material won't do that that's exactly right and on the electronics front Verbeck has created graphene-based inks that can be printed in mass on standard printing presses when printed on waterproof fabrics they can be washed heated ironed wrinkled and twisted without damaging the circuits this is extremely promising for the future of graphene based wearable electronics which Jon says we should be on the lookout for in 2019 what we really hope is that you know we can walk into a room five years from now and most people in that room will have an article of clothing that has graphing wearable electronics in it so there are big things happening with graphene we just have to be patient and we can't believe everything we read about it and for what it's worth we've been here before long standing notion of a Wonder material I think it does go back to the the dawn of the plastic age in the 1920s and 1930s you know you saw all the same kinds of promises made for them that they were going to be these you know one materials that would do everything as I say one word to do just one word yes and some plastics plastics you know they clearly had a huge impact and they do all kinds of useful things but they have their limitations – I guess it was really a sort of reference to the this sort of long-standing idea of wonder materials that were you know going to solve every problem graphene might not be a Wonder material anymore than plastic is but the way john sees it if graphene works well on its own merits the hype won't matter at all we really don't want our customers to care whether it's graphene or not what we want them to know is that this thing this device that you're using works better for longer than anything else you you can get and whether it has graphene in it whether they advertise it and use that hype as part of the marketing or not is sort of completely irrelevant it just is better hey everyone thanks for watching if you have any ideas for material you'd like us to check out please let us know in the comments below and don't forget to subscribe to our new verge science youtube channel where we're putting out a video every week thanks