A New Graphene-Fueled Future Is Closer Than Ever


Graphene, the world’s strongest and thinnest material, is poised to revolutionize everything from electronics to construction materials. As Kjirstin Breure reports, more than 15 years after graphene’s discovery, we may finally be on the cusp of realizing its nearly limitless potential. Kjirstin, president of Hydrograph Clean Power Inc., a leading commercial manufacturer of high-quality graphene, provides an inside look at the latest graphene production methods and innovative applications of this remarkable nanomaterial.

The world changed in 2004, though most people didn’t notice. That was the year graphene was discovered by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two physicists using what’s called the Scotch tape method: pulling ultra-thin layers from graphite until they arrived at one that was only a single atom thick — 1 million times thinner than a human hair.

Normally, a finding like this would be celebrated by other physicists, the team would win some awards (in this case, the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics) and that would be that. In this case, however, an entire industry has sprung up around their very tiny discovery, either producing it from pre-existing graphite or synthesizing it from substances that contain carbon.

That’s because along with being the thinnest object ever created, graphene is also lightweight (obviously), transparent, flexible and strong. In fact, it’s possibly the world’s strongest material, being 200 times stronger than steel. It also conducts electricity better than most materials, repels water, and has a host of other amazing properties. Here are just some of the uses that physicists, engineers and scientists around the world are working to develop with this new material.


Graphene is unprecedented as a nanomaterial in that it can be easily modified to either be hydrophobic (repelling water) or hydrophilic (attracting water), giving drug, biosensor and implant and prostheses manufacturers unprecedented design opportunities. Because it has a large surface area and can bond with almost anything, it’s ideal for targeted drug delivery.

Energy Storage

Graphene’s high electrical conductivity means it is an ideal material to enhance lithium batteries, making them charge faster and last longer. Graphite, the stuff graphene is typically made from, is already commonly used in EV batteries, and some graphene companies don’t require graphite at all to make graphene.  For example, one company can even produce it from oxygen and acetylene.


Imagine a tablet that you could roll up like a newspaper or a smartphone you could wrap around your wrist. Or, on a more pedestrian level, just imagine a phone touchscreen that won’t crack. Graphene possesses the flexibility and strength to make them a reality in the future. Researchers in China have already created the world’s smallest transistor gate using graphene. Studies also show that computer chips made from graphene would be 10 times faster than silicone ones.

Composite Materials

When graphene is mixed with other materials, its attributes can be combined with the original substance, but taking it to new heights. Graphene has been used to improve sports shoes since 2017, making them 50% longer lasting so they can be worn for more than 1,000 miles. A graphene-enhanced foam used in a trail running shoe gave 25% more energy return than other foam soles instead of that energy being lost to heat.

In construction, adding graphene to concrete and cement reduces carbon emissions by 40% to 50%. It’s the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road for every 1,500 tons of concrete poured. As a bonus, the addition of graphene:

  • Reduces the overall amount of concrete and cement needed by 30% to 50%, lowering carbon emissions by a little over 983 pounds per 1.1 tons of concrete produced.
  • Shortens the cure period from 28 days to 7 days (which also reduces carbon emissions).
  • Increases durability by creating a protective barrier around rebar, blocking water and other corrosive elements.
  • This same barrier nearly eliminates damage from seasonal freezing/shrinking and thawing/expanding

Pollution Control

Graphene-based materials can be used to capture and remove pollutants from air and water. One example is a photocatalyst that has been developed and proven to be effective at downgrading at least 70% more nitrogen oxide, aka acid rain, a highly corrosive gas found in smog. Other uses being explored include using graphene to absorb oil spills like a sponge and then release the trapped oil good as new.

All of these uses are just one reason that China is now curtailing exports of graphite, the substance from which most graphene is made. As the world’s top graphite producer, China is in a powerful position to bring all of these developments and research to a skidding stop.

But, as noted at the start, there’s a second way to produce graphene that doesn’t require graphite – it only requires carbon –and carbon is everywhere and plentiful. In fact, it’s the fourth most common element in the entire universe. This approach results in what is called synthesized graphene, versus the naturally occurring graphene. Both forms are identical in terms of their molecular structure; only the process is different.

One way of synthesizing graphene is by using methane. Methane gas is rich in carbon and, when exposed to copper that’s been heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius in a vacuum chamber, will produce graphene. However, it’s hard to separate it from the copper and the whole process takes a long time. Adding some nitrogen to the mix, as has been done at the California Institute of Technology, helps and only requires the copper to be heated to just over 400 degrees.

Other methods to produce graphene in just a few seconds use plasmas, the so-called fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid and gas. It’s what’s created when gas is heated, just like heating liquids produces gas or steam. Dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) is one such method. It involves two electrodes, one of which is coated with ceramic, plastic or other dielectric material, meaning it’s bad at conducting electricity but good at holding a charge. When carbon and a gas like helium are present, a charge is run through the electrodes, plasma is created, and graphene forms on the coated electrode.

A third process, discovered at Kansas State University, involves mixing oxygen and acetylene gas, and then adding a spark to create an explosion. This method is already being refined by a Canadian company called HydroGraph for commercial-scale manufacturing. It currently can produce graphene at a rate of over 440 pounds per week, and it has been rated as having among the highest purity to date by the independent Graphene Council, the world’s largest community of graphene experts, regulatory agencies and more.

These are just a few of the successful examples for creating graphene without graphite, and in the commercially desired large volumes needed for manufacturing sustainable products like green concrete and EV batteries.

Aluminum was discovered in 1825. Twenty-five years later, it was being used in expensive jewelry. Thirty years after that, a new process to create it was invented and now it’s used in everything from aerospace design to wrapping leftovers. Plastic was invented in 1855 from cellulose. The first synthetic plastic wouldn’t be created for another 50 years and mass production would take until after World War II.

With so many people around the world working on so many approaches to producing graphene at a low cost and in large amounts, the puzzle of commercializing graphene has been solved. It’s now being used in not just high-performance shoes, as pointed out above, but also in heated jackets, racing bicycle tires, tennis rackets, hockey sticks, smartphone batteries and cooling systems, COVID face masks and more. It’s even being mixed into paint and applied to battleships to reduce noise and vibrations.

The world changed in 2004. We’re just finally catching up.

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