An accidental discovery about graphene could herald a major breakthrough in clean energy production.
Graphene, a common substance found in pencil leads, has been the source of bafflement for physicists for years as, by all accounts, its behavior is absolutely incomprehensible.
It took many years for scientists to figure out how two-dimensional graphene atoms can behave as though they were a robust three-dimensional material and now it appears that there is still much to learn about the mysterious substance – it could be used to generate a limitless source of clean energy.
Graphite, the substance used to create the lead in pencils, works by leaving traces of stacked sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a so-called ‘chicken wire’ pattern on the page. These sheets are not bonded together and therefore slip quite easily over one another.
Back in 2004, a group of scientists from the University of Manchester finally succeeded in getting these chicken wire patterns to separate into atom-thin sheets. It was then that they discovered that this supposedly two-dimensional substance was transforming itself into a three-dimensional material because of the constant bobbing and jiggling movement of the atoms.
Intrigued by this experiment, physicist Paul Thibado of the University of Arkansas led a team of his graduation in a simple study which attempted to observe the changes in the positions of the graphene atoms as they laid in a chicken wire pattern. The students observed the bobbing atoms using a scanning tunneling microscope and collected the data. What they discovered was that the data did not fit any kind of pattern at all and they were not able to replicate their results from one trial to the next.
This anomaly led Thibado to think that he and his team of students were looking in the wrong direction. The separated each of the tiny images that they had captured into sub-images. There they had more success. “Looking at large-scale averages hid the various patterns. Each region of one image, when viewed over time, generated a more purposeful pattern, ” he explained. The researchers found that the small, apparently random fluctuations in the graphene patterns were creating dramatic shifts known as Levy flights on the nuclear level.
This is believed to have been the first time that this kind of phenomenon has been witnessed on such a small-scale level and it could have major implications.
Thibado believes that the rate and scale of the small fluctuations in the graphene chicken wire patterns have the potential to be used as an ambient temperature power source. He believes that if electrodes were attached to both sections of the moving graphene patterns that they could generate shifting voltage. This has the potential to be highly significant in a time when the search for clean and cheap sources of energy are more acutely needed than ever before.
This movie clip below explains the procedure in detail: