Graphene is the new super material in the tech industry and excites researchers and product developers all over the world with its unchallenged properties. Extremely thin, strong, flexible and transparent, Graphene has an enormous potential to improve processors, displays or batteries, all elements that are critical for the performance of wearables. The nanomaterial is made of a single layer of carbon atoms, which are bonded together in a hexagonal pattern. First studied theoretically in the 1940s it took until 2004 that scientists at the University of Manchester were able to produce the two-dimensional structure, a discovery that was honored with the Nobel price. Since then, researchers are working on scaling the Graphene production process in order to make the material available for industrial applications. Even if it is still a couple of years until we get there, here’s how graphene could impact future generations of wearables.
Transistors and Microchips
Since their invention in the 1940s, silicon transistors have constantly been miniaturized so more of them can be packed into a microchip. In order to improve performance, this trend will have to continue and for silicon-based transistors the limits of miniaturization could be reached in a couple of years. With its thickness of only one atom layer, graphene could help to reach even smaller structures, making the material a promising candidate for future generations of microchips. On the other hand, the super material also has an extremely low electrical resistance which means electrons can move quickly and with little energy loss. This high conductivity in graphene transistors might lead to much faster, energy efficient processors. And because the nanomaterial is flexible, Graphene-based chips enable new form factors such as foldable electronics, opening up lots of opportunities for the wearables industry.
Flexible displays are on top of the wishlist when it comes to designing wearables. Although LG has already presented an 18-inch OLED display that can be rolled up to a radius of 3 cm, an e-ink type of display developed at Cambridge Graphene Center looks even more promising for mass market applications. The researchers have built an active matrix electrophoretic display by “printing” Graphene electrodes on a plastic substrate. With this simple production process, the Graphene based version might become the first flexible display available at low costs, which is significant to hit a reasonable price point for wearables. Based on its initial research, Cambridge Graphene Center is already working on a full-color version based on LCD and OLED technologies. The super material Graphene shows potential not only for printing out pixels but has many other applications in display manufacturing. Applied as a coating, the transparent carbon layer could also turn all kinds of displays into touch screens.
Batteries and Solar Cells
Energy supply is critical for the performance and the usability of wearables. Thus, improvements in battery capacity and charging speed will determine what wearables can do. Graphene, used as battery electrodes, might significantly increase the capacity and charging time. Compared to a Lithium Ion cell, scientists at Lawrence Berkely Labs were able to double capacity by using graphene oxide. The experimental design is still at an early stage, so a lot of research is necessary before the new battery type might become available for device manufacturers. Graphene not only can improve energy storage, it also has the potential to change the way energy is produced. The nanomaterial might be used to produce ultra-thin and light solar cells and also increase the efficiency in converting light into electrical energy.
Superpowers for Wearables?
If the development of Graphene based processors, displays, batteries and other components turns out successful, this will have an enormous impact on the performance and the design of wearables. Cheap, flexible displays will enable totally new product forms and uses; efficient microchips will allow to embed more processing speed in all kinds of products. Powerful, graphene-based batteries and flexible solar cells will help dealing with the ever increasing energy demand. Given this potential its no wonder that the race for Graphene based elements has already begun. Researchers all over the world are working on overcoming technical hurdles and companies such as Samsung have already filed their patents for production processes. It might take a couple of years until we get to see graphene-based components but once the technology hits the market, it could bring wearables to the next level.