Graphene has the potential to change electronics during the new few decades in a manner at least as great as the role played by silicon over the last 50 years. The idea is simple — producing a sheet of carbon atoms just one atom thick — but how is this material manufactured?
Graphene production begins with a sheet of copper foil, held within a furnace filled with argon gas, designed to drive out oxygen in the air. Carbon atoms are then deposited onto the matrix, and a plastic coating is added to cover the sheet, which is then spun 3,000 times a minute. The multi-layered sheet is later broken apart from a combination of chemicals, driving off the copper and most foreign material. The raw graphene is then loaded onto a silicon chip, before being subjected to a blast of gold pellets and plasma.
Because a sheet of graphene is only as thick as a single atom, the material can't be seen by the human eye. However, nearly everyone has produced the remarkable substance in the course of ordinary life. Graphite is the main component in pencil "lead," and lightly drawn pencil lines are able to produce small amounts of graphene.
"Fascination with this material stems from its remarkable physical properties and the potential applications these properties offer for the future. Although scientists knew one atom thick, two-dimensional crystal graphene existed, no-one had worked out how to extract it from graphite," the University of Manchester reports on their website.
It was at that university in England where, in 2004, a pair of researchers finally found a way to reliably produce the substance. Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov took part in "Friday night experiments," during which they would carry out investigations not directly linked to their professional research.
"One Friday, the two scientists removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with sticky tape. They noticed some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments repeatedly they managed to create flakes which were just one atom thick. They had isolated graphene for the first time," as the University of Manchester describes the event.
Graphene is the thinnest material ever devised — a pile of a million sheets of the substance would only stand as tall as the thickness of a human hair. Despite this, it is 200 times stronger than steel, and the most conductive material in the world.
The pair of intrepid investigators would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their efforts, and this is likely just the beginning of a coming graphene revolution in electronics and material science.