Graphene, the wonder material that should rejuvenate almost every sphere of science and technology in the next decade or so, can add another application to its already exceedingly long list: bulletproof armor. US researchers have found that, by stacking sheets of graphene on top of each other, it has between eight and 10 times the stopping power of steel.
I know, I know — at this point, it’s hardly surprising that graphene would make the ideal material for thin and light bulletproof armor. It’s still pretty awesome, however, that all of graphene’s properties — from being the most electrically conductive material in the world, to being super-strong, to allowing for transparent brain implants — all derive from a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure.
This is what perfect graphene looks like: A monolayer of carbon atoms. Turns out, it’s super-strong, along with being mega-conductive among other things.
This new research, carried out by Rice University and the University of Massachusetts, is notable for being one of first examples of actually testing graphene out. Usually, a lot of graphene research is simulated or theoretical or extrapolated. In this case, the US researchers actually fired tiny gold bullets at sheets of graphene, and then measured the results.
The researchers tested between 10 and 100 layers of graphene — between 10 nanometers and 100 nanometers thick, respectively. They focused a laser on a gold filament, vaporizing it into a projectile bullet that traveled at 3,000 meters per second — or more than twice the muzzle velocity of a high-powered rifle. As the tiny (micrometer-sized) bullets slammed into the graphene armor, it showed around twice the stopping power of Kevlar, or about 10 times the stopping power of steel plate. [Research paper: DOI: 10.1126/science.1258544]
An illustration of graphene deforming, as it’s struck by a bullet
As expected, the impact of the bullets caused the graphene to deform into a cone shape — and then cracking radially. These cracks are somewhat problematic, but they could be easily solved with a composite structure (a ceramic plate, perhaps), or just by using more graphene. Remember, graphene is so thin and light that you can basically keep stacking layers of it indefinitely without incurring any significant bulkiness or mass; a million layers of graphene would be on the order of 1 million nanometers… or 1 millimeter thick.
Moving forward, we yet again return to the linchpin of the impending graphene revolution: Producing large quantities of the stuff, at a high enough quality for commercial applications. As it stands, we have processes that can produce fairly large quantities of low-grade graphene, or tiny quantities of high-grade graphene, but we’re still waiting for the Goldilocks method that does it all. And then… and then we’ll be taking rides on a space elevator, equipped with transparent, bendy smartphones, with batteries that last a week… and lightweight graphene body armor, just in case someone shoots you, or you’re hit by a stray piece of space debris. Doesn’t the future sound grand?
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