This week I am in beautiful (but cold) Boston, US, attending the Materials Research Society (MRS) Fall meeting. Has any one else noticed that I always seem to attend US conferences in the winter? Well it hasn’t snowed yet, so it’s marginally warmer than when I was in Salt Lake City in March!

Yesterday I spent much of my time learning about the latest studies into the properties of, and good large scale synthetic routes to, graphene (the single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice that looks like chicken wire). This material is fascinating because – as we were reminded by the first person to isolate graphene in 2004, Andre Geim (from University of Manchester, UK) in his plenary lecture – it is predicted to be the strongest known material, the stiffest known material, the most stretchable material, the material with the highest current density at room temperature (millions of times more conductive than copper)…..and so the list goes on. Graphene has a lot of hype to live up to!

It also offers an equally long list of possible applications that are now starting to be explored – the most popular being as a transparent electrode (and other electronic uses) and as a gas sensor/electronic nose (as it can sense individual molecules). Another, more quirky, application being looked at by Scott Gilje at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in California is using graphene oxide to photoignite rocket fuel. If a thin film of graphene oxide is exposed to a short flash of light, it absorbs the light, and rapidly heats (whilst it deoxygenates to graphitic carbon). It turns out that the heat given off is sufficient to ignite rocket fuel (new lighter weight ways to ignite rocket fuels that don’t need heavy spark plugs and batteries are highly sought after). Carbon nanotubes have previously been explored for this purpose but fall down due to problems like their combustion needing outside oxygen and catalysts, and Gilje believes graphene oxide may hold the answer. Tests however are still in their very earlier stages.

As Geim said at the end of his talk: Graphene will be around for a long time yet. And I for one can’t wait to see what other tricks it has up its (super thin) sleeves.

Nina Notman

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