Since its discovery in 2004, graphene has been described as a wonder material. It's a two-dimensional form of carbon, one molecule thick, that was developed at Manchester University.
Graphene is the thinnest, lightest, and strongest material known to man with numerous potential applications. These range from microelectronics and energy storage through improved battery performance to aerospace construction.
But creating reliable sources of clean water might be one of its most important uses. By 2025, 2/3 of the world's population could suffer clean water shortages. Desalination of seawater is at present inefficient, unreliable, and expensive.
A graphene membrane is like a mesh or sieve with minuscule pores at an atomic scale. A multi-layer membrane made from graphene oxide can extract sodium chloride from seawater much more quickly and cleanly than current methods. And it is more reliable and durable.
At present, graphene filter membranes have only been tested in the laboratory. They're no bigger than a piece of A4 paper. But within five years they should be big enough for use in full-sized desalination plants, about the size of a football field. Meanwhile, researchers are hoping to develop small scale versions for bottles and household units within two years.
Current filters can remove microbes, bacteria, and viruses. But graphene can also take out chemicals, including heavy metals and pesticides. It can even extract the colour from whisky.
It could be used to create the ultimate filter making any supply of water safe as quickly as someone could drink it. These filtration applications could also become relevant to businesses. If this clean water technology can be scaled up, graphene could transform billions of lives.