Graphene is the modern Flubber – an atom-thick carbon film originally created by lifting layers from a chunk of graphite (the material which makes up pencil leads) with sticky tape. Graphene is strong, light, flexible and a superconductor. Graphene has already been used to produce nano-transistors and huge amounts of research dollars are being poured into finding ways to produce the material in bulk and cheaply.
Now the miracle substance, which won its University of Manchester creators a Nobel prize in 2010, may reveal the very grain of space-time, mimicing a lattice which underlies reality, according to a report in New Scientist.
Graphene’s carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagonal formation, with an individual electron able to occupy two quantum states on this hexagonal grid. This phenomenon has been called pseudospin, and compared mathematically to the curious spin of electrons.
Chris Regan at UCLA sees this as true spin, unlike many physicists. In the 1990s research was conducted using carbon nanotubes (essentially, sheets of graphene rolled up into a tube shape), which suggested that electrons were reluctant to bounce back off the obstacles, which Regan feels can be explained if spin is factored into direction changes.
But of course an electron can not spin in the conventional, rotational sense of the word. An electron is an elementary point particle – nothing radiates from it, it has nothing inside it. Regan believes the spin may come, as with the pseudospin generated by electrons in a sheet of graphene, from a lattice pattern underpinning space-time itself.
This is advanced theoretical physics, and will require decades of further research in all likelihood. The idea that graphene may reveal the very grain of space-time is an exciting first step, but the 2-dimensional nature of graphene’s atom-thick hexagonal formation means that it will require a huge amount more work to scale up this grain to higher dimensional space. Regan himself has admitted: “It will be interesting to see if there are other lattices that give emergent spin.”
Graphene has made waves around the world with its many potential applications: its flexibility has excited researchers working on wearable electronics, for example, while its high conductivity has raised hopes that it could supplant expensive metals such as platinum, and its low weight makes it perfect for the aviation, telecommunications and space travel markets. This more theoretical application confirms that graphene really is one of the most exciting materials to be developed in a very long time indeed.