Meet the world’s first 2D material: 5 ways Graphene could transform your phone

Quantum Hydrogen on Graphene
Graphene is the world’s first two-dimensional material. It is one atom thick, which makes it a million times thinner than a human hair. It is also very strong, flexible, transparent, and more conductive than anything else we know. The potential applications are seemingly endless — and the first examples are close to fruition.

There are many, many projects worldwide investigating the potential of graphene for a wide variety of industries, but there are compelling reasons for mobile technology manufacturers in particular to sit up and take notice. Researchers from Samsung and Nokia were among the speakers at the recent Graphene Supply, Application & Commercialisation 2014 summit in Manchester, discussing the feasibility of mass production, the need for further investment, and potential applications ranging from flexible touch screens to transistors and semiconductors.

A brief history

Graphene has been on the horizon for decades. It was first studied at a theoretical level back in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t practically pursued until the 1970s. Millions of layers of graphene form graphite, which is used in pencils, but scientists couldn’t figure out how to isolate it.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two Russian researchers working at the University of Manchester in the UK, figured out how to extract the material from graphite using Scotch tape. They published their research the following year and began to teach others how to make the material, which led to a 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics and an explosion in graphene research worldwide.

The graphite lump, graphene transistor and tape dispenser that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov donated to the Nobel Museum.
The graphite lump, graphene transistor and tape dispenser that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov donated to the Nobel Museum.

Since 2004 there has been a steady stream of papers exploring the strange properties of graphene. The creation of graphene flakes soon gave way to sheets, but there were size limitations to overcome and researchers had difficulty establishing a reliable production method that consistently produced high quality graphene.

As the scientific issues have gradually been solved, all that’s left between us and graphene-toting devices is the will and financial muscle to produce them and that depends upon killer applications.

Flexible, conductive, and unbreakable touchscreens

According to an article published by the American Chemical Society in 2012, “touch screens made with graphene as their conductive element could be printed on thin plastic instead of glass, so they would be light and flexible, which could make cell phones as thin as a piece of paper and foldable enough to slip into a pocket. Also, because of graphene’s incredible strength, these cell phones would be nearly unbreakable.”

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin worked out how to grow larger sheets several centimeters wide in 2009. The method was adapted with even greater success by researchers at South Korean Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon who used copper sheets and a printing press to create a graphene sheet 30 inches in the diagonal. They also created the first graphene-based touchscreen panel. Samsung reportedly produced a 40-inch sheet in 2011, but according to Nikkei Technology, in 2012 Sony used the roll-to-roll method to make a sheet 23cm wide and 100 meters long.

Graphene touchscreen
Roll-based production and graphene touchscreen panel. (Image courtesy of Sungkyunkwan University)   

Samsung’s Seungmin Cho led a session on flexible touchscreens at the recent summit in Manchester and the company has already filed numerous patents related to graphene, including a patent for a touch display device using graphene or carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are sheets of graphene rolled into cylinders.

The fact that it is conductive and transparent makes graphene a great candidate for touchscreens, but the reason it could replace the materials currently used, such as indium tin oxide (ITO), is because it’s stronger and more flexible. Shattered and cracked touchscreens could soon be confined to the past. The fact that ITO is rising in price as it becomes increasingly scarce is also worth considering.

Looking beyond that, graphene could also pave the way for new form factors in mobile and wearable devices, and even foldable touchscreens.

Fast-charging, flexible batteries

Battery size and capacity has long been a bugbear for consumers and manufacturers alike. Imagine you could charge your smartphone battery in 20 seconds and it would run all day. Imagine it could bend, be shaped, and integrate directly onto a chip. You may not have to imagine for long.

According to UCLA research graphene-based supercapacitors could be the answer. They can charge and discharge a hundred to a thousand times faster than standard batteries; they’re flexible and easily shaped; and they’re easy to produce.

“The process is straightforward, cost-effective and can be done at home,” Maher El-Kady of the California NanoSystems Insititute at UCLA explains “One only needs a DVD burner and graphite oxide dispersion in water, which is commercially available at a moderate cost.”

Graphene can also play an important role in making our current lithium-ion batteries longer lasting and faster charging. According to research at Northwestern University sandwiching silicon between sheets of graphene enables a new electrode that can charge 10 times faster and hold a charge that’s up to ten times greater. The trouble with silicon is that it deteriorates easily, but the graphene is far more flexible and can hold it together.

This could dramatically improve the performance of the batteries in our smartphones and enable much slimmer designs. It could also be a real boom for the expanding wearables market.

Better camera sensors and low-light photography

“We have shown that it is now possible to create cheap, sensitive and flexible photo sensors from graphene alone,” says Assistant Professor Wang Qijie, from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Asst Prof Wang Qijie
Roll-based production and graphene touchscreen panel. (Image courtesy of NTU School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering)   

His research has given birth to an image sensor made from graphene which is 1,000 times more sensitive to light than the current crop of compact camera imaging sensors, uses 10 times less energy, and will be cheaper to manufacture.

It’s more effective than traditional CMOS or CCD camera sensors because it’s able to trap electrons for longer, converting light into strong electric signals which can be used to create sharper and clearer images.

Better quality image sensors which are cheaper to produce and less power-hungry are obvious candidates for smartphones. Nokia applied for a patent in this area back in 2011.

Graphene transistors

As we reach the limits of what silicon can do, researchers are exploring new directions and graphene could deliver further miniaturization and greater speed for transistors. The problem is that it lacks an energy band-gap, which basically means that it can’t turn the flow of electricity off.

VerticalTransistorM 2012
Tunnelling transistor based on vertical graphene heterostructures. (Image courtesy of The University of Manchester)   

A number of smart minds are working on potential solutions. One paper from the University of California in Riverside suggests employing negative resistance. The University of Exeter put forth a paper on the Theory of doping graphene, which involves introducing impurities. There has also been research from the University of Manchester looking at introducing an insulating layer of boron nitride.

Faster Internet

Researchers from the universities of Bath and Exeter have suggested that graphene could deliver the Internet 100 times faster. The optical response rate of graphene is extremely high, almost 100 times faster than the optical switches currently in use. Employing graphene in our telecommunications infrastructure could deliver an important speed boost.

Better solar panels, and more

There are other applications that could conceivably impact on mobile technology. Research from MIT has highlighted graphene’s suitability for solar panels. It is excellent at absorbing sunlight, even when deployed in a very thin layer.

There is also lots of potential beyond mobile. According to a BBC report, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paid $100,000 grant to help fund research into thinner and stronger condoms. It’s also being used in gas sensors, water desalination, the aerospace industry, bioengineering, the list goes on and on.

The National Graphene Institute is set to open in Manchester in 2015, at a cost of more than $100 million. It will serve as a center for graphene research and development hosting collaborations between scientists and commercial partners. We can expect great things from graphene in the next few years.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Roll-up solar panels, dream controllers, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Mobile

Samsung patent shows 'hidden display' on Galaxy X foldable smartphone

Samsung has been showcasing bendable display technology for a few years now and a folding smartphone might finally become a reality. The Galaxy X may be the company's first example, and here's everything we know about it.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s Opportunity Rover is stuck in a giant dust storm that won’t end for months

A massive dust storm that is about the size of our continent has shrouded Mars and covered Opportunity for the last several weeks. Much of the planet is in the dark—and so too is Earth about Opportunity's whereabouts.
Home Theater

Samsung’s 34-foot Onyx LED TV looks to change movie theaters forever

Samsung’s new Onyx Cinema LED screen is a massive LED display designed to power the movie theater of the future. Could this 34-foot big-screen make projectors obsolete?
Movies & TV

First 'Aquaman' trailer makes a big splash at Comic-Con

Jason Momoa will bring Aquaman back to the big screen for a solo feature in December 2018. Here's everything we know so far about the aquatic superhero's live-action adventure in the DC Extended Universe.
Emerging Tech

Weekend workshop: Make this 3D-printed side table, even without a 3D printer

You can't 3D print a full piece of furniture, but you can 3D print joints that make building your own furniture a snap. In this article, we'll show you how to do just that, and create an awesome tripod end table that's partially 3D printed
Mobile

Apple's new quick-charging adapter may only be available with 2018 iPhones

Apple's 2018 iPhone range is still a mystery. How many models will launch? What will they be called, and how big will the screens be? Here are all the rumors and everything we know so far.
Mobile

The upcoming Galaxy Note 9 may mark the end of Samsung's Note line

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 will surely be big, bold, and pricey, but will it be foldable, or have an under-display fingerprint sensor? Those are just some of the rumors swirling around one of 2018's most anticipated phones.
Mobile

These smartphones offer all-day battery life with plenty of juice to spare

Finding a phone with a long-lasting battery can be a daunting task these days. We've tested all the latest devices to compile a list of the eight phones with the best battery life.
Movies & TV

The '80s are alive as first 'Stranger Things' season 3 teaser goes to the mall

With a sophomore season as strong as its first, Stranger Things is now moving on to season 3. Here's everything we've learned so far about the Netflix series' upcoming third season.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2018

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Photography

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

Mirrorless cameras offer a lot of photography firepower, inside a compact body. Explore the best mirrorless cameras, from the pro-level to the beginner-friendly shooters, in this guide.
Product Review

With surreal speed and battery life, the 13-inch Surface Book 2 is hard to beat

Microsoft took what was best about its Surface Book 2-in-1 and made it even better. Our Microsoft Surface Book 2 13 review looks at an incredibly well-built machine that’s both fast and enjoyed awesome battery life.
Computing

Chrome is still our favorite browser (but Firefox is catching up!)

Choosing a web browser for surfing the web can be tough with all the great options you have out there. Here we pit the latest versions of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Edge, and Vivaldi against one another to find the best browsers for most…
Mobile

Check out the best iPhone 8 cases and covers you can buy so far

We go shopping for the best iPhone 8 cases and covers to protect your beloved device and achieve your ideal look. There are all kinds of different styles, finishes, and protection capabilities available.
Mobile

Why Apple Watches, Fitbits, and more could soon get more expensive

Proposed $200 billion in U.S. trade tariffs on specific Chinese manufactured goods could result in significant price increases for many mobile gadgets. Products from Apple, Fitbit, Sonos, and others companies could be hit with price bumps.
Mobile

Get a better night's sleep by using a blue light filter on your smartphone

Phone makers are taking the potentially disruptive effects of blue light more seriously nowadays. This guide will explain how to use Night Shift on an iPhone and how to filter out blue light on an Android phone.
Mobile

The Best iPhone 7 battery cases to give your phone some extra juice

The iPhone 7 doesn't have terrible battery life, but you never know when you'll need to juice up on the go. To help, here are the best iPhone 7 battery cases that can keep your smartphone charged and ready for long-term use.
Emerging Tech

Buying on a budget? Here’s all the best tech you can snag for $25 or less

We live in a world where you can get a cheeseburger for $1, a functioning computer for $5, and thousands of HD movies for $10 -- so it stands to reason that you should be able to pick up some pretty sweet gear for $25.
Mobile

Here’s how — and why — to use Safe mode with an Android phone

When you have an issue with your phone, Safe mode can help you determine whether a third-party app is to blame. If you’re wondering how to access it, or how to turn the feature off in Android, then you have come to the right place.
Outdoors

This solar panel rolls up like a scroll when it isn’t charging your gadgets

The Soul is a charging solution that comes with a built-in 5400 mah battery and a 5-watt solar panel that rolls up like a scroll when not in use, making it one of the easiest chargers to take with you on an adventure.
Deals

Save up to $900 with the best smartphone deals for July 2018

Need a better phone but don't want to spend a fortune? It's never a bad time to score a new smartphone and save some cash. We've rounded up the best smartphone deals available that can save you as much as $900.