In construction, product design, manufacturing, and other industries, it is highly advantageous, unless specified otherwise, to incorporate the strongest possible material for assuring reliability, efficiency, and even safety. For standardization, knowing the strongest available material for a common practice can be responsible for widespread adoption of said strong material, and thus could help extend product lifetimes, reduce waste, and create other influential benefits. Therefore, this conceives the question: what is the strongest material in the world?
Before looking further into this, it is necessary to contemplate what is meant by “strongest” material. In science, the word strong does not exactly avoid ambiguity, and a variety of scientific characteristics can be associated with the term. This includes hardness, melting point, or any other quality that indicates how much a particular material resists a certain force that can affect its composition or state of matter. To comprehend what we generally think of as strength in a material, the concept of “toughness” may be suitable.
In materials science and metallurgy, toughness is the ability of a material to absorb energy in the process before fracture. The toughest material should be the most durable, and, by granting an extended product lifespan, it becomes, certainly for industrial purposes, the strongest material in the world. Such an honor has been bestowed upon graphene, a two-dimensional allotrope of carbon.
Graphene is only one-atom thick, and it is traditionally recognized as being stronger than any other material in the world. The strength of this material, as with all other materials, comes from the strength of the atomic bonds of the neighboring atoms inside it. The electrical attraction between carbon atoms is generally very strong (hence, the strength of diamonds). Defects that disrupt perfect atomic arrangements in three dimensional materials can often reduce the strength of materials.
In graphene, however, due to a composition of only one layer of atoms, there are far less opportunities for defects to occur, making it more resilient.
Making graphene can be remarkably simple, too. By taking a small flake of graphite and placing it on a piece of Scotch tape and then pinching it between the tape continuously until nothing is left but a few dustings, you have created the strongest material in the world, even if it is still just a microscopic amount. This is the same method that was carried out by Andre Geim carried out when he and other researchers first discovered the material.
The video below replicates this process:
While it currently does not have commercial use, graphene has the potential for vast applications. Because it is slim, flexible, lightweight, and astonishingly strong, graphene could become a disruptive technology, replacing existing products or materials and opening up new markets. Being 200 times stronger than steel, graphene could be an alternative to almost any conventional product and structure containing the metal.
In the medical industry, the sheer strength and flexibility of graphene could heighten the success of medical implants and devices, and minuscule amounts of the material could enhance drug delivery practices. For energy purposes, graphene could improve wind and solar power technology, reduce the weight and energy usage of supercapacitors, and amplify traditional lithium ion batteries so they can charge devices at an extremely fast rate.
Some of the greatest and most commercial applications of graphene, though, would be in electronics. This is likely to be the earliest adoption of graphene-based products, since Samsung, the electronics titan, holds the greatest number of patents in the material.
In tech, graphene could be used as a coating for future touch screens and tablets, surely safeguarding them from damage brought on by long-term use. The material could also improve transistors, which have been gradually decreasing in size to elevate their performance. Also, due to its reliable thermal and electrical conductivity characteristics, graphene could replace existing technology for computer chips. Some have even theorized that graphene could make it possible to design a tablet that could be rolled up like a newspaper.
However, while its one-atom thickness grants it extreme strength and durability, this same quality makes graphene highly impractical to produce for these commercial purposes. When you put sheets of graphene together you get graphite, a common material that easily falls apart, eliminating all of the advantages brought forth from the use of graphene in the first place.
Another issue is the cost. Just one flake of graphene made with the simple Scotch tape process can cost up to $1,000. Gram for gram, this makes graphene not just the strongest, but also one of the most expensive materials on the planet.
It is also worth pointing out that, while it has long been recognized as the strongest material on Earth, graphene might actually be weaker than one other known material. This alternative, carbyne, is a carbon-based structure that exists as a one-dimensional chain of atoms with alternating single and triple bonds. Carbyne first appeared in early 2016 when a team from the University of Vienna rolled up two sheets of graphene to provide a protective tube in which they created the new material. This prevented it from breaking and as a result managed to synthesize a stable chain 6,400 atoms long.
While this is just the result of one experiment, it prompts hope that carbyne could be used as a component of commercial practices. Regardless of any particular application, graphene and carbyne are stronger than any other known material in the world, and their usage could enhance countless industries.