James Chapman is a PhD student at The University of Manchester researching the superconductivity properties of graphene. He is also a part-time illustrator.
Graphene is the thinnest material in the whole world.
On starting graphene research
Three years ago, the Nobel Prize went to Manchester University, which I was doing my undergrad at, for the discovery of graphene which happened in 2004. So I got the opportunity to start a PhD project in the same group and I jumped on the opportunity really, because it’s a very exciting area of physics, and it’s really just gone on from there.
On what graphene is
Graphene is the thinnest material in the whole world. It’s only one atom thick and it can be isolated from graphite, which is in pencils, by, ah, removing layers of it which you can do with sellotape really, just sticky tape, just to peel these layers apart and then get down to one single atomic layer, which is the strongest material in the world, the thinnest, the lightest, and it’s very good for electronic applications. Which is very good.
There’s quite a few places in the UK that are doing a lot of work on graphene. There’s competition worldwide, though, with South Korea and Japan investing a lot of money in it as well, but the UK is doing a lot of great work with it so we should be able to capitalise on it, hopefully.
On current graphene research
At the moment it’s being developed a lot for, um, smart phone, tablet computing, sort of, touch screen technology. It’s got an advantage over what they currently use in touch screens as, being so thin and light, it’s very flexible. So phones could be rolled up or folded up as you need them really. Rather than your rigid iPad, you could have a fold up, or a roll up mat, really, that had the same functionality, which is quite exciting.
With its great strength, a lot of work’s being done putting it into materials to increase the strength. Like our carbon nanotubes we used in the past to increase the strength of, say, an airplane body – or tennis rackets even; I think there’s graphene tennis rackets that are available right now in shops – to really just enhance the strength by using this atom thick material, which is quite exciting.
So, lithium-ion_batteries they use graphite, lots of layers, and you put in lithium ions in between these layers to charge it up and they come back out again when they discharge and that’s…the storage of the energy is within the compound between the layers. But when you’re using graphene instead of graphite for the thing that you put the lithium ions into, you can increase the storage capability of the battery and you can reduce the charging time because it’s a lot easier to get the ions in, so by using graphene in these rechargeable batteries it’s hoped that they will last longer and take less time to charge, which is basically two things we really like about batteries. Because at the moment they take too long to charge and don’t last long enough. But with graphene that should be a thing of the past. Hopefully.
It will probably increase cost based on…just at the moment, a lot of technology already exists to use graphite in all these things but, ah, there’s always going to be a cost to change to a new system but in the long run it’s whether it’s going to be beneficial or not, so we need to do more research to find out how easy it is to make the switch and then start making the switch to it if it’s going to be something that’s really world changing. But it’s…yeah, there’s a lot of potential there in graphene so let’s hope it’s in the market. It should be in the market to buy pretty soon hopefully.
On the arguments against graphene
There’s none that I can think of. I think the health risks…I don’t think there’s any, it’s so thin, it’s basically already in existence, we are just now using it for our own personal gain rather than, ah…I’m just trying to think of any and there aren’t. Graphene is very safe.
On my research
I’m studying the magnetic properties of graphene. So, basically, super conductivity of graphene is my PhD project. So superconductors, when they get very cold, they exhibit very special properties like zero resistance and expel magnetic fields which is quite an interesting thing to look at, and graphene, at the moment, does not show that as a property but I’m trying to induce it into the material. Trying to make it have the properties that it doesn’t already have, because apparently it doesn’t already have enough properties with it being strong and light and transparent and conductive. But, yeah, superconductivity would be a great thing to find for graphene so that’s what I’m working on at the moment.
It wouldn’t really be a changing the world type of application, it’s a more a step in the right direction. At the moment we have certain superconductors but if we can get them at higher and higher temperatures, then we know what we’re doing with them, then we can develop them more and more and eventually one day have room temperature superconductors which would definitely be a world changing discovery.
If we had room temperature superconductors, then every day circuits in computers and just anything electronic, you could have zero resistance in any sort of wire and you could shave levitation as well, which is quite exciting. Because when it expels a magnetic field…if you have a superconductor that’s cooled, you put a magnet on top of it so that the field lines sort of loop round, you can…it’ll just hover above it so being repelled but also attracted at the same time, so it’ll just sort of wobble there. And then it’ll stay like that, as long as the superconductor is kept cold, forever. It’ll never fall. So it’s quite exciting. They have this technology with, like, magnetic levitation trains that they have in some countries where the train sort of just hovers, sort of above the track. So a smoother journey. But, I dunno, to me personally that’s something like a gimmick I can get behind. I think levitation and hover boards and Back to the Future II, that’s basically my…that’s what I want to make real. I want a hover board, that’s what I want. And, also, my PhD finishes the same year that Back to the Future II was set it’s really [fingers crossed]…I think it’s gonna happen, I’m pretty sure, yeah.