It is said that there are two holy grails of physics: efficient water desalination, and efficient means for storing energy. Graphene, it appears can do both. It can also do a whole lot more besides, including giving Moore’s Law a new lease of life. But is this little more than a pipe-dream?
Technology cynics seem to have an inability to understand time. There are massive time lags in the development of technology – always have been. Graphene was first isolated in 2004, it won the researchers behind the breakthrough, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, from the university of Manchester, a Nobel Prize in 2010, and today it is beginning to look as if the promise of this miracle material is about to be realised. Still cynics pour scorn on the very idea – dismissing the latest breakthroughs as ideas that work in theory but not in practice. They say that we have been hearing about the promise of graphene for years and yet that is all it is, promise, and never reality.
They seem to be unaware that the 13-year period, from isolation of graphene to today is actually incredibly short. In fact, consider the time lag between isolation and Nobel Prize – six years. That is an incredibly brief period of time. But, that is what it is like today, the time lags between discovery, Nobel Prize and mass market acceptance have become compressed.
Imagine an electric car, or an electric aircraft. Its shell is made of graphene making it ultra-light, and thus making it very fuel efficient. The windows are made of graphene, so you can heat them up quickly, thawing any ice that may have accumulated on a frosty morning in hardly any time. Likewise, the seats are made of graphene. The battery is graphene too, which can be charged up far more quickly than lithium ion batteries, and can enable the car/aircraft to travel much further between re-charges. Finally, graphene based circuitry means that the various instrumentation can be displayed anywhere you like, on the windows, perhaps.
One gramme of graphene has the same surface area of a tennis court, it is 50 times stronger than steel, and a superb conductor of electricity, the best thermal conductor, transparent, and highly flexible.
Last week, Sir Richard Branson predicted that in ten years or so from now, airplanes will be made of graphene rather than carbon fibre.
But now a report published in Nature has claimed to have found a way to use graphene as a sieve, so that you can separate water and the salt in salt water.
In fact, the potential application of graphene for water desalination has been known for some time, what we appear to have seen is a breakthrough in the practicality. The idea is simple, drill tiny holes in a graphene membrane which are too small to allow salt molecules to pass through. The snag has been that the holes get bigger with use. The breakthrough relates to coating the graphene with epoxy resin which stops the expansion of the holes.
But, if the technology can be cost effectively ramped up, this is an incredibly important breakthrough – it may even reduce the chances of a global conflict.
That may seem like an over the top claim, but bear in mind that the third largest fresh water resource in the world lies in Tibet – only the Arctic and Antarctic hold more fresh water. And the rivers that flow from this region, such as the Indus, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yellow River, Yangtze, Kiang and Sutlej are the most important sources of water to the world’s two most populous countries: India and China.
A recent report in the FT quoted Jean-Louis Chaussade, boss of the French company Suez, citing projections that by 2035 some 40 per cent of the world’s population will live in areas facing water scarcity, and then predicted that water will become more valuable than oil.
Not only are India and China the world’s most populous countries, by the end of this century, they will be the two richest. But fresh water is finite in supply – at least it is at the moment – and there is a real danger of conflict as countries battle for control of this scarce resource, just as they have done in the past for oil.
But the graphene water sieve could solve that problem, make the supply of fresh water ample and in the process, solve the threat of mass starvation and remove the biggest threat to global security.
So yes, graphene really can save the world.