Graphene is one of the most significant technological breakthroughs in the past 18 years, and it has the potential to greatly impact how the U.S. Army fights in multidomain operations.
Graphene is a material with electronic qualities similar to those of a diamond, in which carbon atoms are stacked in layers, an atom thick, on top of each other.
The Army could see three distinct benefits from graphene. First, graphene can significantly improve body armor. Second, graphene could dramatically enhance the Army’s ability to generate power. Third, graphene filters could provide the Army with more of its No. 1 natural resource: water.
Graphene was first extracted at the University of Manchester in the U.K. in 2004 by physicists and professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on graphene. Graphene is a form of carbon that forms from graphite. Graphite is a natural substance made up of graphene sheets stacked on top of one another. Pencil “lead” and lubricants are examples of substances containing graphite.
Graphene is a two-dimensional material, meaning it has two dimensions: one for length and one for width. Graphene sheets consist of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like structure, a hexagonal pattern repeated in a flat plane. Graphene layers are bound by strong covalent bonds between carbon atoms. Covalent bonds link atoms to one another. They are like wires as they bind the positive and negative charges in an atom together.
Graphene can be easily created at home with a pencil and tape. Geim and Konstantin initially extracted graphene from the lead in pencils. According to an October 2010 BBC News article, “How sticky tape trick led to Nobel Prize,” Geim described the method: “You put [sticky tape] on graphite or mica and peel the top layer. There are flakes of graphite that come off on your tape. Then you fold the tape in half and stick it to the flakes on top, and split them again. And you repeat this procedure 10 or 20 times. Each time, the flakes split into thinner and thinner flakes.”
Impact on the Army
Graphene presents opportunities for technological innovation for the Army. It could impact the service in three areas:
- Body armor. Graphene is robust and significantly more flexible than steel, and it can hold energy, making it a good candidate for body armor for the military.
- Power generation. Graphene can help batteries in radios and other devices that require a quick charge or replacement. It also can assist in generating power.
- Water purification. Graphene is highly reactive with water, opening its potential for water filtration systems.
Let’s discuss these three areas of opportunity one by one:
Graphene in body armor provides an extraordinary level of protection. Graphene can produce energy rapidly, conduct electricity and resist heat. It can withstand 10 times greater impact than steel, and it blocks radio waves. Graphene’s superior strength is what could make it the Army’s next prominent innovation in defense technology, changing how soldiers fight.
Graphene stores energy and is ideal for body armor due to its strength and flexibility. Army body armor is typically made from layers of Kevlar. Kevlar is a strong material that graphene could replace because it has a higher tensile strength. Graphene is resistant to being pulled apart or crushed. It also has a high elasticity, which means graphene does not become permanently deformed when twisted or stretched.
Graphene body armor will be more effective than current Army body armor. It can distribute kinetic energy more evenly and also will store kinetic energy, which can be released in a controlled way to lessen damage from an impact.
The Army needs a new way to charge and recharge its devices quickly. Graphene will recharge Army devices because it is a supercapacitor, or a high-capacity device that stores electrical energy in an electric field. In addition, graphene discharges electric charges rapidly, which means it can recharge electronic devices in minutes.
This allows graphene to conduct heat and electricity. Graphene conducts heat better than copper, which is used in Army heat exchangers. Graphene will be able to replace copper for this purpose because it is lighter. Graphene is also extremely thin and flexible, which will allow it to fit into tight spaces. Graphene’s ability to store energy means it can be used as a battery component to recharge radios, electronics and other Army devices.
The Army has a water purification challenge. Its current water purification equipment is unreliable, among other issues. Graphene will help the Army develop a better water filtration system. This will provide a mobile and reliable asset for the Army. Graphene filters are faster, more efficient, can be developed at a reasonable cost and require less power than current filtration systems.
Graphene also can be used as a filter for water purification systems. It is highly reactive with water, which means it is excellent at removing molecular contaminants. Graphene conducts electricity. With its carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like structure, it can contain an abundance of electrons that are free to travel through its honeycomb structure.
Graphene sponges have been developed for absorbing water. They are superhydrophobic, which means they prefer water molecules. This characteristic allows graphene sponges to be used for water purification as well as other uses. Graphene sponges are also exceptional for electronic devices as they can soak up liquids without harming them.
On the Battlefield
Graphene is flexible, elastic and stronger than anything we have seen before. This combination of strength and light weight will allow the Army to carry equipment weighing less than it does now and with the same protection.
An excellent analogy for graphene and multidomain operations is to think of a one-time-use box of raisins. The raisins are encased in a cardboard box, which is wrapped in cellophane. This is like multidomain operations, because several domains are bundled together, and nothing must leak out. These properties are essential in the box of raisins analogy for graphene and multidomain operations. If anything were to leak out from one domain, it could be deleterious to the other domains.
The Army’s goal is synergy between domains. Graphene has several properties that will help the Army in this goal by enhancing communication between domains, improving water purification and access to water, and allowing the Army to put everything in a small space that is easy to transport. This increases operational reach, improves freedom of action and endurance in executing unified land operations, and trades space for time.
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Maj. Jamie Schwandt, U.S. Army Reserve, is a logistics officer and Red Team member. He is certified as a Department of the Army Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and has a doctorate in adult education from Kansas State University.