Scientists have been given a million pound boost to develop a new wonder material that could help eliminate global warming and turn seawater into drinking water.
A British team is developing graphene, a man-made carbon substance 200 times stronger than steel which can be a thin as a single layer of atoms.
Graphene can be used to convert plants into biofuel at room temperature – potentially slashing carbon dioxide emissions.
The ultra-light and thin material can be used to coat other much cheaper materials to give them crucial properties like strength or electrical conductivity.
The Centre of Graphene Science has now been awarded a £1.1 million grant to explore new ways of creating the revolutionary new material.
The scientists – engineers and physicists from the Universities of Bath and Exeter – got the money under Chancellor George Osborne’s new Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council scheme.
Bath Professor Simon Bending, who jointly leads the team with Professor David Wright from Exeter, said: “Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon and has extraordinary physical properties.
“It is ideal for a vast range of potential applications spanning ultra-fast electronic devices and touch screen displays to bio-sensors.
“Current methods of manufacturing graphene are too expensive.
“We plan to eliminate this bottleneck and accelerate the commercial uptake of graphene by developing entirely new ways to fabricate it.
“In Bath we will exploit our expertise in synthetic chemistry to adapt an industry-standard atomic layer deposition technique to coat a variety of important materials, like microchips.”
Experts say one of the most important applications of graphene will be in creating biofuel from plants – a synthetic petrol suitable for cars and other vehicles.
Plants such as corn stalks and bamboo are fermented to produce a weak solution of alcohol which needs to be distilled until enough is concentrated to turn into fuel.
The current process involving heating the liquid to distill the alcohol and get rid of excess water but it uses fuel and can be quite costly.
However, the porous nature of graphene means some variations allow water vapour to pass through it without heating while preventing other materials getting through.
That would enable alcohol to be distilled at room temperature – without the need of any additional heat source and reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The scientists also predict that endless supplies of clean, fresh water could be made for billions with graphene filters used to desalinate seawater.
Graphene can also be used to make tiny computer components capable of holding astonishing amounts of data because it has a very high melting temperature.
The government money will be used to discover new ways of creating graphene, in the hope of bringing down the cost and increasing commercial opportunities.