Are we one step closer to being able to use the world’s strongest material?

CNN  — 

It has been 15 years since the discovery of graphene, an ultra-thin sheet of carbon that is thought to be the strongest material on the planet.

Although graphene is much stronger than steel, turning it into a useful material for architecture has so far proved tricky. Translating two-dimensional graphene into a three-dimensional structure – the building blocks of a material – has been difficult. Graphene “wants” to stay two-dimensional.

That may be set to change thanks to a team of researchers at MIT.

Using computer modeling, the researchers have designed a new – currently nameless – material, a sponge-like configuration that is just 5% the density of steel and about 10 times as strong.

This makes it both extraordinarily light but able to carry heavy loads – properties that the researchers think make the material ideal for future use in design or architecture.

“We can use this kind of material as a substitute for a lot of materials used in infrastructure, like bridges, or as a substitute for steel and concrete,” says Zhao Qin, one of the research scientists who worked on the development of the material at MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The origins of graphene

Graphene was first discovered in 2002 by Andrew Geim, a physics professor at the University of Manchester.

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Discovering the world's strongest material
02:25 - Source: CNN

Geim was interested in seeing how microscopically thin layers of carbon might behave by themselves.

He looked to graphite, the substance used in pencils that is made of thin, weakly bonded layers of carbon (the reason why dragging a pencil across a piece of paper will produce a visible line).

Geim used Scotch tape to peel away ever-thinner “flakes” of graphite until he eventually had a layer that was just one atom thick: graphene, the first two-dimensional material discovered. Under an atomic microscope, graphene looks like a flat lattice of hexagons in a honeycomb arrangement.

As well as being incredibly strong, graphene is pliable like rubber and can carry a thousand times more electricity than copper.