In a new video exploring graphene—the two-dimensional wonder material revolutionized by household tape—the American Chemical Society (ACS) singled out, it’s potential to make solar more efficient and cheaper to produce. ACS is a Congressionally chartered organization.
Graphene, a single atomic layer of carbon atoms, was discovered in 2004 by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselou at the U.K.’s University of Manchester. The duo won the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery (Geim previously won the 2001 Ig Nobel Prize for magnetically levitating a frog, by the way). They revolutionized the science of graphene with what became to be known as the Scotch tape method. Basically they took graphite, placed it on tape and peeled it back, did it again and again, until they had a single layer of atoms, which were transferred to silicon. What resulted is a single-layer of super-strong hexagonally connected carbon molecules. It has properties that make it 100 times stronger than steel, and a great conductor of electricity.
“Graphene could be used in combination with other photovoltaic devices to make solar panels that are thin, flexible and cheap,” according to the video. “These light and flexible solar panels could cover the outside of buildings, be molded to fit a car body or be wrapped round furniture or clothing. This could lead to a new generation of sun-powered eco-friendly homes and products.”
In such a scenario a photovoltaic device would be sandwiched between two layers of graphene, one top, allowing light through, and one on bottom. The layers would conduct the electricity produced by the PV materials in the middle.
Another property of graphene that could make it important for solar is that it’s transparent. So it could be used in transparent solar devices. However, the ACS video anticipates that the first commercial uses of graphene are most likely to appear in smartphones, as part of their touchscreens. Such a use could result in paper-thin phones with virtually unbreakable screens.
While the material has vast potential in everything from solar to electronics, bionic implants and more, there’s still much work before it ends up in consumer goods. There’s still the matter of making sheets of graphene large enough and pure enough to make them useful, according to the video.