What’s in your pencil can change the world. Graphene, which is in the tip of that No2 pencil (in the form of graphite), has some incredible properties. In a recent study, researchers created a new method using graphene to control the beating of human heart cells in a petri dish. Knowing how heart cells work in vitro helps us understand how drugs may affect the heart in vivo. Currently, the method uses glass or plastic dishes, which do not conduct electricity. Since our hearts do conduct electricity, this method is unfortunately unreliable.

Graphene, on the other hand, does conduct electricity and can be used to more realistically mimic the heart’s environment. Scientists can control the cells and manipulate their beat rate. By adjusting electrical impulses, they can cause cells to beat like regular heart cells.  They can also make them beat quicker or slower, like heart cells in different disease conditions. Drugs can be tested in these different conditions and provide more accurate data on their effects on the human body.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern (“hexagonal lattice”). It is touted as the “thinnest material in the known universe” while also being 150 times stronger than the same weight in steel. A potent heat and electrical conductor, graphene has great potential in our technologically-excited world. Continual research is conducted on the conductor, with another recent study claiming that graphene can be a superconductor too. Super is often better, but what makes the super worthwhile here is that superconductors usually only work at absolute zero, or -273.15 degrees Celsius (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit for American friends). Most people don’t live in those temperatures, so finding a superconductor that works in more ‘normal’ temperatures would be marvelous. Researchers suggest that graphene could be what we’re pining over, if arranged appropriately (specifically, with two graphene sheets aligned 1.1 degrees apart).

Right now, graphene’s presence is not as expansive as its potential. Some researchers believe its properties are lacking to make it a realistic conductor in our electronics. Graphene doesn’t have ‘band gaps,’ which are energy states of a solid material where electrons cannot exist. This means that graphene cannot act as switches, like semiconductors. Even when band gaps are introduced, some find that graphene’s super abilities are reduced to those of extant muggle-based technology.

Others, however, argue that the product is fine; it’s the business that is not. A lot is already invested in silicon-technology and it will take time for that foothold to overturn. Ramping up graphene production will require a hefty financial investment since it is still expensive to manufacture and manipulate.

One day, I believe, whether via graphene or some other wonder-kind, supercomputers will be the norm.  Great leaps in science and technology await the arrival of a sustainable, useable superconductor.

Great leaps in cute cat video consumption await it too.


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