Graphene: From the laboratory to the high street

Graphene, the 2D wonder material that has the potential to revolutionalise the textiles industry and change life as we know it.

A DESIGNER dress with lights powered by the wearer’s heartbeat has grabbed headlines for the world’s skinniest but strongest material – graphene.

The wonder material consists of just one layer of pure carbon and, despite being found in metamorphic and igneous rock, was not isolated until 2004.

Since then Prof Andre Geim and Prof Kostya Novoselov, from The University of Manchester who discovered the material, have been joined by a host of researchers seeking to exploit graphene’s perfect hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms in applications that up until now have only been make believe.

But progress is slow. Dr Zina Cinker, executive director of National Graphene Association in the United States, said: “There will be a time where we can look back and say we were successful in facilitating it into the mass market.

“We are all collaborating and collaboration does not know bounds or countries. We are all in this together because it’s a global phenomenon and whatever we can do should be done. It will be good for everyone if we see commercial aspects from graphene and I hope that we will be collectively successful.”

The electrons in graphene travel at the speed of light in crystal, it has one of the highest heat conductivities, it is the thinnest material that has ever existed, and in its purest form, graphene is actually the strongest material in the world.

“All these things combined make for a very good science fiction movie.

“Graphene is absolutely amazing and it has all these wonderful properties when we look at it in the laboratory, but what you see in the lab does not translate into a product very nicely, so we need to patient with the progress of graphene.”


Graphene has endless potential, but society needs to understand that none of the amazing properties it boasts will transfer seamlessly onto the materials that are combined with it.

Instead, the National Graphene Association is using nanoplatelets as an additive for high volume manufacturing, to give multi- functional benefits to the composite materials.

Similar examples of this would be the recent work from the University of Cambridge, where researchers have coated cotton fibres with graphene particles to create string sensors for monitoring heartrate, all the way through to coating textiles with organic light emitting materials so that the fibre becomes the light source.

This integration, which can also be done via high volume speed 3D printing with graphene ink, will change the way we approach textiles and alter our spending habits, as well as life as we know it. Usually, conductive inks are made from melted down silver, or other scarce materials that are not sustainable, which makes them very costly.

A spokesperson for the graphene department at The University of Manchester said, “The excellent electrical property of graphene could be used to manufacture next generation smart electronic textiles.

The longevity of graphene- based wearable technology would need to be researched and tested based on what the overall application is and the environmental stresses placed upon the garment.

“The requirement to make this a reality however, requires manufacturing-ledcompanies to engage with using the material alongside the supply chain to reduce cost and improve exact reproducibility.”

Graphene is also already being used to improve smart devices, and it has the potential to spark a new generation of technology.

It could be manipulated to enable a smart phone which you could wear on your wrist or a tablet you could roll up like a newspaper. These flexible, wearable electronics would take advantage of graphene’s mechanical properties as well as its conductivity.

Francesca Rosella, CuteCircuit’s high tech clothing expert, has used smart materials to design dresses for celebrities like Nicole Scherzinger, and helped to create the world’s first graphene dress. It was unveiled at the Trafford Centre in Manchester in January this year.

The dress translated the wearer’s heartbeat into power for built-in LED lights, and showcased the amazing properties of the wonder material through haute couture. Although this shows that clothing could be used to monitor health, the cool things we see with graphene are very difficult to produce in mass.

Cinker continued: “I don’t think we’ll be seeing graphene dresses in shops over the next year or two, but in niche markets it is already playing a role.

“Directa Plus in Italy have two ski jackets which are designed with graphene, that were used in competition. Graphene is one of the best heat conductors in the world, so when skin touches the pattern it conducts very quickly and follows the printed patterns to warm up the wearer.”

These enhanced ski jackets, which are expected to be on the market this year, utilise the thermal properties of the wonder material to ensure that the wearer maintains an ideal temperature. Principally, the material acts as a filter between the wearer’s body and the external environment. In addition, the graphene makes the material bacteriostatic and electrostatic to reduce the friction with air and water, and facilitate top sporting performance.

These examples suggest that the wonder material is set to develop a very strong presence in the fashion, sporting and healthcare sectors, but it takes time and hard work for every technology to be implemented. There is so much pressure for these sorts of advanced materials as they tend to be overhyped and people get very excited about them, before saying ‘Oh they haven’t delivered.’

Most people expect way too much too fast, and that’s not the way to interact with a new, advanced material.

“The reason why it made such a splash was the fact that we live in a 3D world. A truly 2D material should not be stable, or at least that was the understanding for decades and decades,” Cinker said.

“We’re still debating whether nanotechnology is safe or not, but so far graphene does not have any health hazards. I don’t think we’re going to die from it.”

‘All these things combined make for a very good science fiction movie.’

Graphene is carbon and it should therefore not be dangerous or toxic in its normal form. In fact, the biological and environmental compatibility of graphene are changing the science, textiles and technology landscapes completely.

Humans need to use less energy and reduce their environmental footprint, and adding graphene to familiar products could help ensure a sustainable Earth.

Dr Ravi Sundaram, scientist at Oxford Instruments Nanotechnology Tools, said: “Graphene’s applications have had positive impacts on the environment. For example, its use as a protective material in light bulbs ensures that they are 10 per cent more efficient and last longer.

“There are many other applications which are beneficial to the environment too, from transparent electrodes in solar cells, to the removal of radioactive elements from waste water. This is done using very little materials, compared to its counterparts.”

From a business perspective, there are some great ideas and huge opportunities for graphene, but researchers need to work together and communicate what needs to be done to achieve commercialisation and build a better future.


This post is the first feature in a three part series entitled, ‘The Textiles of Tomorrow.’ The series was written and designed in the style New Scientist for my Print Journalism Final Major Project in May 2017. Here’s the end product:

Graphene high street

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