Graphene is made of pure carbon atoms glued together in a honeycomb structure to create a material that’s only an atom thick. It has several properties that topped the lists of compounds known to man:
It’s the thinnest and lightest material ever discovered, has an incredibly high tensile strength exceeding that of steel’s, and is an excellent heat and electrical conductor. These almost alien abilities make it more elusive to scientists and engineers who continuously find ways to exploit it to benefit us all.
The material exists in two-dimensional form and because it’s too thin, translating it into a 3-D structure still poses a big problem. This is why researchers at MIT were exhilarated when they successfully simulated a computer model that renders graphene into a three-dimensional material. Several flakes of graphene were fused together by the computer, resulting in a model that showed a wavy, sponge-like structure ideal to harness graphene’s structural strength.
The team said that the simulated model exceeded steel’s strength by up to 10 times while being only 5% as dense. If we can successfully produce this and administer it for practical applications, we’ll be able to ride lighter, faster but sturdier cars and erect taller skyscrapers.
The researchers said they’ve done several experiments on what three-dimensional shape graphene can take form, but all failed their strength tests except for this one. The unbroken, wavy shape helps maintain graphene’s extraordinary properties.
A more surprising result tells the team that the strength of the material came not only came from its properties but also from the geometrical form itself. The grooves, the pores, and the continuity of the shape somehow contributes to improving the overall strength of the material. This observation makes it possible to try cheaper and more commonly occurring materials to be molded into the same curvy shape to see if the idea will hold true.
Producing graphene is still highly impractical and extremely expensive. It involves several complex processes including the use of some toxic materials. What has been created thus far in this discovery is just a 3-D model printed using plastic and not actually graphene. All the capabilities of graphene are useless if we can’t use it in practical applications.
Our current technology may still not be enough for us to reap graphene’s rewards. We are still in the process of finding the means to mass produce the material in a more practical and non-hazardous way.
This discovery, however, is a step towards that advancement. Soon, we’ll be able to build lighter but stronger infrastructures than any material we know of.