Speaking of battery life, my second prediction for NAB 2014 will be the introduction of some graphene-based products. What is graphene? It is a one atom thickness of pure carbon, with atoms arranged in a two-dimensional hexagonal honeycomb lattice pattern. It’s also the next big thing, not only for the broadcast industry, but for the world. In fact, the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to two scientists at the University of Manchester for their groundbreaking graphene experiments.
Actually, tiny bits of graphene are created with every graphite pencil mark. Graphene is the world’s thinnest material, one carbon atom thick. A thickness of two carbon atoms isn’t graphene. Some basic properties of graphene were first identified in the mid-1800s. More detailed scientific investigation began nearly 100 years ago, but it remained on the back shelf because of the virtual impossibility to obtain it in any larger scale.
A few years ago, scientists at the University of Manchester created graphene using common household adhesive tape to split graphite crystals into thinner and thinner layers, down to one atom thickness. Various other techniques have been tried, such as lithography, with little cost-effective success.
More recently, researchers at UCLA discovered how to make graphene by coating a DVD with a solution of graphite oxide and water and literally burning it in a consumer-grade Light Scribe DVD burner. The laser light oxidizes the solution, and the result is a removable layer of graphene. Using this technique, UCLA researchers produced more than 100 micro-supercapacitors on one disk in less than 30 minutes.
The awesome properties of graphene are sometimes called “CERN on a desk,” referring to the Swiss Hadron Collider. This name comes from the fact that electrons in graphene are virtually massless like photons, and can travel long distances without scattering. Electrons and holes travel near light speed. Graphene is also extremely strong, transparent like atomic-level chicken wire and highly conductive.
There is a growing list of amazing doors graphene promises to open. It can be the material of ultra-fast transistors and ultra-sensitive photodetectors. It can make a gas sensor capable of detecting a single gas molecule. It can drastically improve LCD displays, solar cells and touch screens. The list seems nearly endless, but what appears most promising in the near term are supercapacitors.
A supercapacitor is like a battery, but it can be charged and discharged 100 to 1000 times faster than a battery. Batteries store a large amount of energy, but they are slow to charge and discharge. Typical capacitors are quick to charge and discharge, but they store little energy. A supercapacitor combines the best of both. It charges and discharges like a capacitor and stores a large amount of energy like a battery. Imagine a professional video camera battery that fully charges in seconds. Imagine an electric vehicle that charges in about one minute. That’s what physicists are predicting.
Unlike toxic batteries, graphene is a harmless carbon-based organic substance that can be disposed of in the trash or even in a compost bin and later used for fertilizer. Single layer graphene acts as a metallic conductor. Applying external electric fields to bi-layer graphene makes it act like a semiconductor.
Graphene is one of the hottest topics in physics labs around the world, and new discoveries are being announced at an unbelievable pace. There’s too much information about graphene on the Internet to recommend one or two sites. Search for graphene, and prepare to spend some time reviewing and challenging your knowledge of electron-level physics.