Stick some sellotape around a grey lead pencil, pull it off, and then take a look at the tape. That grey layer left on the tape is the atomic-sized material graphene. So what? It certainly doesn’t sound very powerful, but graphene is actually highly tensile, 200 x stronger than steel and is the most conductive material known to man. It’s capabilities are so promising that global heavyweights like Samsung, IBM and Xerox are taking far more than a casual interest in it.
In fact, there are research units all over the world dedicated to understanding the possibilities graphene offers. They are discovering ways to print graphene transistor screens, create highly conductive nano chips and ultra-powerful batteries. Graphene could one day mean our everyday clothing charges our mobile phones, curtains could be used to power our homes and the proliferation of electric vehicles that run on super capacitor batteries. It could help purify salt water, clear toxic spills from the ocean, create more efficient engine lubricants and if mixed with a bulk material like concrete it could be used to reinforce buildings and bridges. Its potential is overwhelming.
So, if graphene is so exciting, why isn’t it getting the same amount of mainstream press as say 3D printing or the Internet of Things?
The answer lies in our ability to mass produce it. At present the price of graphene limits it for the most part to use in R&D. Until someone discovers a cost-effective way to mass manufacture it, it’ll remain unfeasible for common use. Nevertheless, the global race to achieve mass-production is underway and when the answer arrives- you can expect massive change and fast!
And these changes are beyond exciting… Let’s take architecture as an example. By using graphene, manufacturers will be able to make lighter, stronger materials. Ropes on suspension bridges can be 200 x thinner and achieve the same structural strength as we’re currently achieving, therefore they are easier to transport, quicker and cheaper to construct. Likewise, instead of anchoring buildings to the earth and building them up using concrete foundations and steel frames, incorporating graphene could allow for layered cities, with floating buildings tethered to the ground. We could even see skyscrapers that are twice as high, yet don’t buckle under their own weight like today’s buildings would.
Other exciting possibilities include the manufacturing of graphene surface skins for the interior and exterior of buildings. These 'intelligent' skins could be embedded with computers that report on their own health, thus reducing repair costs. Their thermal and electrical conducting properties could also help control interior atmosphere. Exterior paint is also set to change. By combining graphene with a limestone powder, paint could take on a reinforcing framework at a molecular level, making it not only decorative and protective, but a physically supportive layer. As a transparent material, graphene is also a perfect match for glass. The strength of graphene would make it practically unbreakable, and due to its conductivity we could potentially embed solar cells into windows. Imagine mega skyscrapers that are powered by their own windows! The potential is unmistakable and seemingly unending.
This insight is power. It’s not always the case in business that we can see into the future and know what’s about to hit- but the protracted race to produce commercial graphene offers us this power. We should consider the delay in graphene’s mass production as our ally. It allows us the opportunity to understand this exciting material and its possibilities, then plan and position our organisations in such a way that graphene will be a benefit, not a burden.
After all, the most successful innovators don’t act retrospectively. They see an opportunity and act now.
When it comes to graphene, there has never been a truer statement. Whether you run a small manufacturing operation, or a large multi-national, you need to be prepared. This super material is coming and it’s those with the right combination of foresight and ingenuity who will come out on top.
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