"Black Panther", the latest of superhero action movies based on Marvel comics, is the most science-positive of the series. Unfortunately, it is also completely scientifically unrealistic, thanks to the film’s deus ex machina vibranium, the fictional metal around which the movie is centred. Vibranium is an alien material which crash-landed on Earth 10,000 years ago with extraordinary (and extraordinarily fictional) properties. Think invisible flying ships, sports cars formed instantly out of sand, and bracelet-controlled holograms. While scientists speculate some precious metals (including gold) crash-landed on Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago, nothing as spectacular as vibranium seems to have made it. But some material scientists believe we already have our own kind of “miracle material”, and chances are you already have some of it in your home. It’s called graphene.
Graphene (notice, not graphite) is a substance made out of pure carbon that has almost reached a "Black Panther" level of hype. On the discovery of this super-material, Samsung’s executive VP Youngjoon Gil said: “It was as if science fiction had become reality.” This is because scientists believe graphene is about 200 times stronger than steel, a better conductor than copper, more flexible than rubber, essentially invisible to the eye, and it can repel onslaughts of bullets while you ride top speed on the roof of a car (okay, that last one is only true of "Black Panther").
But one of the most interesting properties of vibranium is its ability to absorb the “kinetic energy” of bullets and, on command, shoot explosive energy pulses. The titular superhero, T’Challa, wears a slim-cut panther suit made of vibranium fabric. His suit protects him from oncoming bullets, which ricochet easily off his body.
He then uses the absorbed kinetic energy to flip over cars and fight bad guys. While this is total science fantasy, a couple of researchers have shown the body armour application of graphene already. In microscopic “bullet” tests, multiple layers of micro-thin graphene performed 10 times better than equal layers of steel.
As for the energy-absorbing powers of the suit, well, that might be purely science fiction. But one of graphene’s most alluring properties is its ability to transmit electrons faster and with less difficulty than any existing conductor on Earth. This could mean lots of electricity for the energy grid at large, as well as in personal devices. While graphene can’t transfer kinetic energy from a bullet into crime-fighting energy pulses, if you shoot it with electricity, it will carry it at never-before-seen kind of speeds.
You might remember from high school that substances made only of carbon come in a couple of different versions: graphite and diamond. If you attended high school more recently, then you might remember some new additions to that list, including fullerenes (Buckyballs), nanotubes, and the wondrous graphene. What makes these compounds especially interesting is their structure: they’re composed of the exact same stuff – carbon atoms joined to carbon atoms – and yet could not be more different. Graphite, found in the "lead" of a pencil, is very soft and frustratingly breakable. Diamond, on the other hand, is wickedly strong (and of course a girl's best friend). The reason these materials take on such different properties is because of how the atoms are arranged.
Thus soft, breakable graphite becomes strong, conductive graphene when it is shaved down to one single atomic layer. Sounds great, so when will graphene-based "Black Panther" suits hit the market? While optimistic scientists might compare graphene to vibranium, the applications of the material will remain science fiction for now because, as it turns out, it is incredibly difficult to break down graphene into atomically thin pieces large enough to be useful.
Currently, chemistry and physics labs investing in graphene manufacturing are small-scale and focused on how to get one of the most expensive materials on Earth to a point where they can actually start playing with it. Companies THAT produce high quality sheets of just a few centimetres squared will still make headlines. Thus, there has been no progress on the health or environmental applications of graphene, let alone on how it could be woven it into a superhero costume. But just like plastic was for the 20th century, graphene might be the material hero of the 21st.
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