From transportation to defense to smartphones, graphene, the lightweight and ultra-strong material, can be used in various fields and has the potential to become a ubiquitous engineering material. 

Jiaxing Huang, chair professor of materials at Westlake University, shared his views on graphene and talked about why the material is important for modern industry and what China has been doing in the field at a fireside chat at the BEYOND Expo 2022, held online at BEYOND Metaverse on Sept. 21. 

The text below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why is graphene important?

Let’s look at the material science of graphene’s structure. The basic structure of the whole graphene family is single atomic layers of carbon. It’s carbon formed of single atoms – and that’s the fundamental structural characteristic of graphene.

So based on this structural characteristic, what exciting properties does it have?

The first is hardness. Graphene is single atomic in type and has a free-standing structure, making it an incredibly strong material. 

The second is its thinness. The material is made of a single atomic layer, unlike other kinds of material like paper, which can be made to different levels of thinness. So it will only have one atom thickness. And its electrical properties lead to a strong ability to absorb light. 

Graphene also has other properties, such as conducting electricity, producing heat, and possessing stable chemical reactivity. It won’t change if you leave it in the air for an extended period, making it convenient for various usages.

Huang Jiaxing, chair professor of materials at Westlake University (right) talks to Lu Gang, founder and CEO of TechNode (left) at the 2022 Beyond Expo.

How can graphene disrupt industries?

Graphene could become a widely used engineering material like aluminum alloy, which is so ubiquitous that you don’t even know it’s there.

I think the application of graphene won’t happen in one major eruption, but a more incremental and transformative process. The material may end up being used in your phone, in your computer or even in your clothes, like a graphene coat or a suit of armor. 

It has the potential to be everywhere in every corner of your life. And if you want to use a material for heat management in fields such as outer space and deep sea exploration, graphene, as a non-metallic material, has lighter weight and better radiation resistance. That’s why I say it will become a fundamental engineering material.

Smartphones already adopt graphene for cooling. The material is lighter than copper and performs better in heat conduction. Although not exactly a killer[-level] application. Using graphene in smartphones is a great preparation for future killer[-level] applications. 

China’s advance in graphene development

In China, we now have a notable production capability of graphene in a single layer and a few layers. Thicker layers are made of folded single layers, and China can be said to be the best in this area. China also leads in the number of graphite powder manufacturers worldwide. There are fibrous, foam-shaped and a variety of other forms, too, where Chinese firms have done pretty well.

However, this industry has a high technological barrier. There are a lot of startups and American entities [doing similar things]. But they will soon meet a bottleneck in that the conductivity of [produced graphene] is two orders of magnitude worse than copper. Yet it’s ten times more difficult when you try to advance and close that gap. However, I have seen research results and applications of graphene in China [close to copper’s performance], which is really extraordinary.

Ward Zhou

Ward Zhou is a tech reporter based in Shanghai. He covers stories about industry of digital content, hardware, and anything geek. Reach him via ward.zhou[a]technode.com or Twitter @zhounanyu.