By Joshua Reed
Global society is being held hostage. Humanity continues to spew carbon into the atmosphere because we are told we have no other options. Since the industrial revolution, roughly 375 billion tons of carbon have been emitted into the atmosphere we breathe and sucked into the oceans. For those who worry that this carbon addiction will lead to catastrophe for our planet, be hopeful — a hero might just be on its way. While carbon in the form of CO2 has long been cast as the villain of this story, there is another, “green” form of carbon that could yet save us all: graphene.
When graphene was discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two professors at the University of Manchester, it was hailed as a wonder material with applications that could save the world. It’s easy to see why: Although a sheet of graphene is only a single atom thick, it’s proven to be 200 times stronger than steel and can carry 1,000 times more electricity than copper.
Admittedly, the early hype around graphene may have been a little premature, as there are still limitations on feasible implementation. At the time of its discovery, graphene had inconsistencies in its form between each sample, it wasn’t cheap to produce, and scientists weren’t sure how to best apply this new wonder technology. It’s been a little over 15 years and, in that time, researchers have come a long way in working out the kinks in graphene and branching out to more inventive production methods and applications.
My investigations into graphene took me across the ocean, where an astonishingly elegant technique to produce this magical material has been developed. At Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, a team of researchers has discovered a method to use carbon capture to produce graphene. With the help of specially prepared, catalytically active metal surfaces, graphene can be formed by heating CO2 and hydrogen gas to 1,000 degrees Celsius. This essentially allows us to cycle carbon out of the atmosphere and convert it into graphene parts for green technologies.
To understand more about the applications of graphene, I spent some time with SungWoo Nam, a nanoscale materials and devices researcher who is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. When I asked him about the new material’s uses, he told me “graphene is better than traditional additives. In tires for example, instead of using black carbon and rubber, mixing in graphene will get better performance out of the composite product.” Everyday products that are traditional carbon composites can be improved hugely by replacing them with graphene, ensuring a longer life — and meaning that smaller amount of carbon, if any at all, will be consumed.
How else might graphene feature in our low-carbon future? One of the most well-known green energies is solar power. For all its hype, solar only accounts for 1.8% of all energy generated in the United States. As Karl Mathiesen of The Guardian writes, “… solar is held back by its ‘capacity factor,’ essentially how often it is producing electricity. A coal power station runs at 70-80% capacity. In northern Europe, solar panel capacity factor is just 15%.” A solution to this “capacity factor” issue could be graphene, which has been proven to be a supercapacitor. If we were able to supplement traditional solar panels with graphene, or even completely manufacture them out of graphene, solar energy would become much more efficient, reducing the need to burn fossil fuels.
Like solar energy, the electric car was hailed as an innovation that would propel us into a carbon-free future. But as with many similar technologies, it is not without its shortcomings. The batteries used in these cars are dependent on materials like cobalt that are scarce, and too often extracted using exploited or slave labor. BBC reports that, “Apple, Google, Tesla, and Microsoft are among firms named in a lawsuit seeking damages over deaths and injuries of child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” where 60% of the world’s cobalt is mined. For an alternative to the unethically sourced lithium and cobalt used in our electrovoltaic batteries, look no further than graphene, a promising replacement due to its great efficiency in conducting heat and electricity.
Graphene can now be cheaply and more easily produced in the lab, so why hasn’t it yet lived up to expectations? One reason is funding. Currently, a large amount of research and development is done by universities, with their long turnaround and highly competitive funding streams. Nam explained just how complicated it is to get funding, but he also informed me that, “(They’re) seeing more interest from startups or the tech industry in trying to make graphene more marketable.” With interest from the private sector, the implementation of graphene could arrive soon. This would weaken the stronghold that fossil fuels have had on us for the last century and counting.
Simply by living in an advanced industrial society like the United States, I was born effectively shoveling carbon into the fires that would ultimately burn that society down. So were my parents, and their parents. The Industrial Revolution began with the promise of “advancing” humanity, but doing so meant having to sacrifice the only home we know: Earth’s climate, forests, and seas. With graphene’s discovery, we now have the opportunity to use carbon in a different way. There may have been some roadblocks initially, but graphene is becoming much easier and cheaper to produce, and has potentially game-changing applications for a green energy economy. If our carbon future is graphene, we might finally breathe a deep sigh of relief — and this time, it will be clean.
About the Author …
Joshua Reed is from Lemont, Ill. He graduated in May 2020 with a B.S. in English as well as the Certificate in Environmental Writing (CEW). He plans to pursue a law degree in Chicago. This piece was researched and written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2020.