Graphene, the decade-old super-material, could become the future of body armor, once again proving itself to be one of the most versatile materials on the planet, according to a study published in the November issue of Science. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, tested the material in a miniature ballistics range by directing a powerful laser at gold filaments, causing the filaments to superheat and fire spherical “microbullets,” which were aimed at graphene sheets of varying thickness. Since the sheets are so thin, full-sized bullets would cause them to disintegrate, which forced scientists to create a ballistics range on a micro scale.
What the experiment found was that the sheets warped into a cone shape upon impact with the spheres, significantly dissipating the energy, but also causing cracks to spread from the site of the impact. This suggested the potential for a wider impact hole, compared to the materials the graphene tested against, including steel and Kevlar. Researchers hope to eliminate this weakness by combining the graphene with other materials, reports the BBC. Despite the cracks, the super-thin material easily outperformed Kevlar, the current leading, light-weight material in body armor. According to Science, the super-material absorbed the spheres’ kinetic energy eight to 10 times as effectively as steel, and twice as effectively as Kevlar.
At one atom thick, graphene is one of the thinnest, lightest and strongest compounds known to man. It is also one of the best room-temperature heat conductors and virtually unmatched as a conductor for electricity, according to Graphenea, one of the world’s leading graphene manufacturers. The material is made from a single layer of carbon atoms, tightly packed into a bonded honeycomb structure. Following oxygen, helium and hydrogen, carbon is the fourth most abundant element (by mass) in the universe, and the chemical basis for all known life. With that in mind, many scientists have turned to the material’s possible applications for ecologically sustainable projects.
One such application is hydrogen fuel. Though graphene was previously thought to be impermeable, it was recently discovered that protons can travel through it, says Nature, leading researchers to believe that the material could be used to extract energy from hydrogen atoms. It would work to break open fuels like hydrogen by separating the atom’s protons and electrons, allowing the protons to pass through while capturing the electrons along an outside wire to create electricity. Fuel cell membranes currently in use tend to be both thicker and more permeable than super-material, allowing more than protons through the membrane, while limiting how many protons effectively pass through, making weaker fuel cells. Graphene could present the perfect solution to this dilemma, as protons appear to be the only thing it is permeable to.
Despite the myriad uses for this super-material, since its first chemical obtainment 10 years ago, it was considered largely impractical for commercial uses and developmental research. Until 2012, separating the material from the metallic board on which it is grown was a complex and costly process involving toxic chemicals, and growing its layers on a large-scale was impossible. By reusing the metallic board, the toxic waste involved in its creation has been greatly reduced and the quality of the material remains high enough for application in electronic devices. Graphenea believes the material’s quality when created through this process is likely to be a limiting factor in its technological uses in the future.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa