Blog: Graphene - a raw material for our digital future

Met dank overgenomen van A. (Andrus) Ansip i, gepubliceerd op donderdag 1 maart 2018.

I recently went to Barcelona to take part in the Mobile World Congress.

This is a major annual event for the international mobile telecoms community where I have been privileged to be a speaker for the last couple of years.

It is also home to the Graphene Pavilion, which showcases the latest innovation from Europe's graphene community.

It is run by the Graphene Flagship, one of the EU’s largest ever research initiatives.

This was launched in 2013 along with the Human Brain Project, which aims to create the world's largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain and studying how the human brain works.

While in Barcelona, I made sure there was space in my agenda to see the latest in graphene-based devices and try them out for myself.

The possibilities of this material seem endless.

Experiencing graphene first-hand at the Mobile World Congress. Photo credit: Alexandra Csuport and Graphene Flagship

The examples on display - 25 different demonstrations - are certainly practical: you can immediately see their use and value.

It was clear that industry interest for this project is huge.

For the telecoms world, graphene has immense potential because of how it can enhance higher-performance optical communications. But this goes way beyond just telecoms.

For those unfamiliar with graphene, I will just say that it is one of the most interesting and versatile materials of all time.

Graphene is a transparent and flexible two-dimensional material based on single atom-thick layers of carbon. As such, it is the thinnest compound known to man: a million times thinner than a human hair.

It is a few hundred times stronger than steel compared by weight. It is immensely light and flexible; highly conductive, electrically and thermally. Even better, it is relatively cheap to produce.

As last year, I found an inspirational display with imaginative and cutting-edge applications, specialised demonstrators and prototypes.

The Graphene Pavilion was divided into several categories of use. We started with data communications.

Here, graphene’s superb electronic and optical properties were on display: photodetectors and modulators receiving and transmitting optical data faster than ever before.

One of the key future requirements of optical communications technologies is a nanoscale light source that can emit ultrafast light pulses. Graphene is an ideal material.

The detectors' extreme bandwidth allows an ultra-fast data transmission speed. These enhanced parameters will play a key part in next-generation communication networks, starting with 5G.

Next came graphene batteries. Small but beautiful, as well as highly practical.

Graphene can be used to increase energy storage, in supercapacitors as well as in much smaller forms like pouch and coin cell batteries, used to power a flexible touch pad.

Using graphene to reinforce the battery's electrode improves its energy density, power capacity and lifetime. This will help anyone who uses a mobile phone - almost everyone.

Adding graphene to a battery electrode improves energy capacity, lifetime and reliability. Photo credit: Alexandra Csuport/Graphene Flagship

I was especially impressed by the very small graphene-based 5G antenna on display.

It weighs far less than what is now available and removes the need to use a crane to reach the top of a mobile mast.

Due to its flexibility, graphene also allows significant advances in speech therapy and rehabilitation.

I was shown flexible graphene-based brain implants that can read signals from the speech centres on the brain's surface.

Smart shoes

Sports footwear may not be the most obvious market for graphene. But not only does its strength help to make shoes more durable, graphene can also be added to smart shoes for extra comfort and to provide pressure tracking. In athletic shoes, this can aid performance.

One prototype on display in Barcelona demonstrated how graphene foam in insoles can track pressure distribution across the foot, for sports analysis and detailed performance monitoring for athletes. It can also provide feedback for people with foot conditions.

Trying out graphene-based shoes at the Mobile World Congress

Another type of shoe keeps your foot cool and fresh. Its graphene soles have above-average heat conductivity that raises antimicrobial properties of the foot's sole.

Just one last graphene-based device before I finish: a wide-spectrum light camera that can see details invisible to the human eye.

Sensitive graphene photodetectors detect light ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, in the same camera sensor and at the same time. This has never been achieved before.

The applications here, I think, could be many.

Quality screening for food safety, imaging systems for autonomous cars.

Since the device is sensitive to a wider spectrum of light than a commercial camera, it could be used in a wide range of optoelectronic applications - such as data communications

I hope this gives at least a flavour of some of the many amazing applications based on graphene that are becoming available - and gradually reaching the market. I was particularly struck by how practical they are and how well geared towards the consumer.

I have no doubt that many more graphene-based products are on the way, waiting their turn to emerge from the lab, into the shops and into our daily lives - thanks to EU-funded research.

Another blog soon.