Graphene's biggest short-term promise is in high-speed electronics and in flexible circuitry such as that in Dr. Ferrari's keyboard, because of expected demand for use in pliant electronic displays. Companies such as South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. 005930.SE +0.39% and Finland's Nokia Corp. NOK1V.HE -0.77% have filed for patents covering various graphene uses in mobile devices.
One of the hottest areas is graphene ink used to lay down circuitry, which a few companies have begun to sell. Dr. Ferrari's lab last year filed for a patent on a graphene ink that can be deposited by inkjet printers. BASF SE BAS.XE -0.01% is experimenting with graphene ink to print flexible circuits into upholstery that can heat car seats, a technology it says could be in the market in a few years.
"Graphene combines various effects" that make it distinctive, says Matthias Schwab, a lab team leader in BASF's graphene-research operation. "I am seeing no other materials that can do it."
In effect, graphene has only two dimensions, in a microscopic structure that resembles chicken wire. In a study published five years ago, Columbia University researchers concluded it was the strongest material measured. They calculated it would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to puncture a graphene sheet the thickness of Saran Wrap.
It absorbs and emits light over the widest range of wavelengths known for any material. It conducts electricity far better than silicon. Unlike silicon, which is brittle, graphene is flexible and stretchable.
Graphene circuitry promises to eventually be cheaper than conductive materials such as copper and silver because it can be made from graphite—the plentiful stuff of an ordinary pencil lead—and can also be created by combining certain gases and metals, or synthesized from solid carbon sources.