Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry

By Becky Snowden | 13 August 2016 | Updated: 12 August 2016

Could a carbon revolution be about to happen? The first major exhibition on the magical material strongly suggests the future is graphene

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
The UK's first exhibition dedicated to graphene, Wonder Materials, has opened at the Museum of Science and Industry© Angela Moore for Museum of Science and Industry
If a reverse Kryptonite exists, it might be graphene. Super-conductive, ultra-thin and incredibly strong, this emerging phenomenon can be used in everything from improving batteries to treating cancer – and a new Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester is allowing some of the finest scientific experimenters the chance to galvanise the properties of a material only really discovered in 2004.

A year-long exhibition of science and the arts also aims to allow non-lab experts to explore the wonders of graphene at the Museum of Science and Industry, and some of its stand-out aspects are the responses by artists. In The World Wakes, poet Lemn Sissay has produced a powerful call for creative ideas to help realise graphene’s potential.

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
Lab scrubs at the National Graphene Institute© Jason Lock
For Sissay, graphene should inspire people to come up with incredible uses for it. Just as it could be used for something “good”, graphene could also be used to produce guns and other weapons. There’s also a graphite-coated Elizabethan cannonball and the sticky tape dispenser which inspired the isolation of graphene.

“You can really easily transform graphite so that it becomes transparent,” says Professor Andre Geim, a Sochi-born Dutch-British physicist at the university who, alongside colleague Sir Konstantin Sergeevich Novoselov, won the Nobel Prize in his field for their work on graphene in 2010.

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
Two graphene pioneers: Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov© Yana Audas
“That was kind of the eureka moment. During the last ten or 15 years, something new happened. We learned that there is a new class of materials which are one atom or one molecule thick. Graphene is one of those materials – the first which came around was studied.”

Geim observes how we now buy new gadgets for their swisher designs or to replace chipped screens and dead batteries rather than as a result of fast-ranging technological – or, as he terms them, “disruptive” – advances.

a photo of a frog in water
Geim won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for levitating a frog via magnets© Professor Andre Geim
“The perspective of a scientist on the world around us also makes me worried,” he steadily proffers. “We’re living on leftovers of previous disruptive technologies. We have used the previous scientific technologies to full extent and now we’re just tinkering at the edges of those technologies we had before.

“Most people look for a new gadget like a mobile phone, a computer or something similar. They look for new features, more powerful software, better design. When I see these gadgets I’m always amazed how such small space can be packed with so much scientific knowledge.

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
Gamini Ajantha Bandara, the Mining Operations Manager of Global Graphene Industries in Sri Lanka© Courtesy Panos Pictures
“It’s the discoveries of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century which made these things possible – in some cases, like error code corrections, it goes to mathematics 200 years ago.

“In other cases, like the physics behind the silicon transistor, it’s a relatively young area, only 70 years ago. It tells you how long it takes between academic research and a gadget made by industry.”

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
A sample of monolayer graphene with silver epoxy© MOSI
More optimistically, Geim believes graphene has “a sky-high chance” to lead to the kind of new technologies that will stimulate economies, echoing the kind of impact made by the steam engine, the transistor or the internet.

“I desperately look around for new technologies and I see very few candidates on the horizon. Graphene does offer some hope. During the last few years we’ve learned a lot about this material to judge confidently about its future potential.

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
A test image from Random International's research explorations following their residency at National Graphene Institute© Courtesy Random International
“With so many superlatives to its name – the thinnest, the strongest, the most conductive material – graphene has become one of the hottest subjects in science. Thousands of researchers voted with their feet – actually, more with their professional lives – and moved into this new research area.”

The material, he points out, is crossing disciplines. “It has turned out to be so pervasive that within just a few years it’s spread from material science and physics to biology and genetics,” he says.

“Among everything I know, graphene is my best bet for the next disruptive technology.”

Graphene: a layer of greatness

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
A graphene patchwork quilt© Cornell University, Pinshane Huang, Arend M van der Zande, Carlos Ruiz-Vargas, Jiwoong Park, Paul McEuen, David Mull
A single layer of carbon atoms, graphene heralds a new age of materials. It was first isolated in Manchester in 2004 and has exceptional properties.

A million times thinner than paper but 200 times stronger than steel, graphene has opened the door to a whole new landscape of exploration and potential. Along with other single-layered materials, it is changing our understanding of the world and what is possible.

Scientists have known for years that graphite is made up of layers of completely flat 2D crystals called graphene. What they didn’t know was how to remove one of these incredibly thin sheets.

A photo of scientists looking at a molecular graphene material in manchester
An optical microscopy image of graphene, © Courtesy Colin Robert Woods, University of Manchester
In 2010, Professor Geim and Professor Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for doing just that. Geim and his team managed to peel graphene from granite using simple sticky tape, isolating it for the first time and allowing its extraordinary properties to be studied.

Uses of graphite, found centuries ago in the Borrowdale Hills, are well established, but exploration of how we might use graphene has only just begun.

Graphene is a crystal. Its atoms form a highly ordered hexagonal lattice, a bit like a long stretch of chicken wire. We can see this structure with the help of today’s sophisticated microscopes.

A photo of a large black cannonball in an exhibition in manchester
Borrowdale graphite was used to line the casting moulds for English cannonballs. This one, from a shipwreck near the Channel Island of Alderney, is part of the Alderney Museum Trust collection© Becky Snowden
Early studies of crystals could only theorise about why different crystals have different shapes and sizes. The models displayed in the exhibition are thought to have belonged to William Hyde Wallaston (1766-1828), an English chemist. They all show how groups of atoms might form different crystal shapes.

Graphene is extremely small – only an atom thick. It’s hard to imagine the world at this scale. How do we visualise what we cannot see?

Scientists have a long history of using models to share ideas and theories about their understanding of the building blocks of matter. These models don’t show what molecules ‘really look like’, but they are useful tools for illustrating the structures and shapes of groups of atoms. As theories have changed, so have models for explaining them.

The name graphite comes from the Greek graph: to write. Graphite is great for writing and drawing, but is impractically messy to touch. To avoid this, early users wrapped graphite sticks in sheepskin or strink, and the wood-cased pencil as we know it was a later invention.

Fed up of his pencil ‘leads’ breaking, English artist William Brockedon (1787-1854) made a machine to compress graphite. This invention, which he patented in 1843, led to the idea of pressing medicine into pills that gave a safe, standardised dose.

Graphite was a wonder material long before graphene came along. Its ‘greasiness’ made it a perfect lubricant for machinery and its malleability and heat resistance made it ideal for lining the casting moulds for coins and cannonballs.

In the 16th century, access to Borrowdale graphite enabled the English to mould smoother cannonballs of a more standardised size. This gave them an advantage when it came to battles at sea.

  • Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond is at the Museum of Science and Industry until June 25 2017.

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