Graphene: a new Europe-led energy era?


On October 2010, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (University of Manchester, UK) “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

The Graphene Flagship is the EU’s biggest research initiative ever, and, according to the European Commission, ‘history’s greatest distinction for excellent research’. With a budget of EUR one billion, the Graphene Flagship is tasked with taking graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the space of ten years, thus generating economic growth, new jobs and new opportunities for Europeans as both investors and employees”.

Graphene is a very thin (one atom thick) pure carbon; its most important features, which have raised researchers’ and industries’ interest, are:

– Eco-friendliness
– Human-safe for people working on it and for end-users
– Lightness
– Flexibility
– Mechanical resistance (more than steel)
– Anti bacteria and anti microbes
– Ability to capture solar light and to induce artificial photosynthesis

This latter feature, for instance, makes graphene electrodes determinant to improve the effectiveness of solar cells (which are also cheaper, lighter and more flexible!). Another interesting application related to solar power is the use of photovoltaic graphene-based paint, i.e. a paint that captures solar power for domestic use. This paint, combined, for instance, with graphene-based energy storage battery might improve the ability of urban private and public infrastructure to be energetically self-sufficient and eco-friendly.

Indeed, thanks to its mechanical features, graphene-based nanomaterials have many promising applications in other energy-related areas: supercapacitors, lithium-ion batteries, and catalysis for fuel cells. For instance, graphene improves both energy capacity and charge rate in rechargeable batteries; activated graphene makes superior supercapacitors for energy storage; crumpled graphene boosts performance of high-energy lithium storage materials; and multifunctional graphene mats are promising substrates for catalytic systems.

Once again, after the XIX century UK-led coal era and the XX century oil-based economy, Europe is recovering its leading research role investing in graphene, a “new” material which would have been highly appreciated by our ancient Greek philosophers of nature – e.g. the Milesian school: Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes – who believed in small natural substance building the world, such as Lego construction toys. Now, we have a name for this substance, graphene, and it is likely to be our energy source in the very next future.

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