The Future is 2D
We’ve all heard of graphene – the ground-breaking 2D material which has been developed by a team of British scientists and is thought to have huge possibilities for filtering water among other things. But although the most famous, graphene isn’t the only 2D material out there and development continues apace to create the next generation of smart materials with many practical applications.
The world has a seemingly unending appetite for electronics and, in turn, electronics need an almost endless supply of semiconductors. A semiconductor (any solid material which conducts electricity under certain conditions) is an essential part of any computer chip and, until now, we have used silicone in most situations. Researchers at the University of Utah have recently developed a new 2D semiconducting material which, in tests, has allowed electricity to move through it much more quickly than traditional silicone. Made from a single atom thick structure of tin and oxygen, it is thought that when this semiconductor is brought to market it could speed up our laptops and smartphones, making them 100 times quicker than they are at present. It could also mean longer lasting batteries, as each smartphone operation using the new semiconductors would use less electrical power. Experts expect to see a prototype form of this new semiconductor in the next two or three years. Work is also continuing into phosphorene, a single atom layer of phosphorus, which is believed to have similar properties.
Bill Gates and the $100,000 Contraceptive Grant
It sounds like the title of a bad Hollywood thriller but the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has also shown interest in the practical applications of 2D materials like graphene. Working through his charitable foundation, Gates has given a grant of $100,000 to the scientists at Manchester University who originally developed graphene to apply the material to the manufacture of condoms. Currently, one of the main barriers to the use of barrier contraception is that current condoms are not thin enough or light enough and manufacturers struggle to develop a latex or rubber product which is strong enough to be safe, yet light and thin enough to appeal to customers. Gates believes that creating a new generation of contraceptives using 2D materials could provide an enormous advantage in the battle against sexually transmitted diseases the world over, especially HIV.
Buildings Made from Graphene and Other 2D Materials?
It’s unlikely that we’re going to see buildings constructed solely from graphene anytime soon. However, given that graphene is said to be 200 times stronger than the toughest steel, there are endless possibilities for using graphene and similar 2D materials in combination with others. Car bodies built incorporating 2D materials could be stronger and safer than at present but also lighter and much more fuel efficient. Similar benefits could be found in the aviation industry, or in shipbuilding. Could we go a step further and see 2D materials used in major construction projects to make our bridges stronger and our skyscrapers even higher? This isn’t something we’re likely to see in the next decade but as research into 2D materials progresses, it’s something which will be explored with increased frequency in the second half of the 21st century.
Medical Applications for 2D Materials
Could perhaps the use of graphene and similar materials in medicine have the biggest impact on our lives in the future?
One of the main hopes for 2D materials is that they could transform the way we treat patients with cancer. It is thought that a form of graphene can be used to selectively target cancerous cells and, when used in combination with other treatments, could help tumours stop growing and cancer from spreading. One of the main downsides of current treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy is that healthy cells are affected as well as the cancer but this targeting of treatment using graphene should mean far fewer side effects for patients than more traditional treatment plans.
Clinical trials will be needed before this science delivers benefits to patients but this targeting of treatment could be one of the great medical advances of the next 20 years.