Imagine that you had clothing that’s just a couple of atoms thick. It’s remarkably light, about the same weight as aluminum foil. Now imagine this clothing is nearly impenetrable — so strong that it can stop bullets. In 2017, scientists working at The City University of New York (CUNY) outlined a process for creating such material, and it could one day lead us to the era of nearly impenetrable armor.
The science and other stuff to know
In a paper published in Nature, scientists at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY detailed a way to create something known as “diamene.” The novel material is made of layers of graphene.
For the uninitiated, graphene is one of the strongest materials ever measured. It’s also remarkably light. The material is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb nanostructure. In their work, the ASRC team tested how two graphene layers could transform into a diamond-like material upon impact at room temperature.
To conduct this work, they used computer simulations to model what would happen when pressurizing two honeycomb layers of graphene that were aligned in different configurations. They then used an atomic force microscope to test their models. Specifically, they applied localized pressure to two-layer graphene on silicon carbide substrates. The results perfectly matched their calculations
The team discussed the significance of their work in the conclusion of their paper, outlining exactly how strong this impressive material is. “[G]raphene film not only displays a stiffness similar to that of diamond, but it also resists perforation by a diamond indenter at loads that can create plastic indents in bare SiC, one of the hardest materials known,” they wrote. “This is the thinnest film with the stiffness and hardness of diamond ever created,” Elisa Riedo, the project’s lead researcher, clarified in a press release distributed at the time.
In other words, the work set us on the path to ultra-light, flexible materials that are astonishingly strong. Just how strong? When they are impacted, these materials could harden enough to stop bullets.
Unfortunately, the road that we must travel to get from the initial research stages to actual product launches is often relatively long. Years later, it remains to be seen whether humanity will ever be able to create such ultra-light armor that is mere atoms thick.
However, this research initiated a flood of research into graphite-to-diamond phase transition in two-dimensional materials. Related research was published by teams at Washington State University in the Journal of Applied Physics in 2019. And additional research continues to be published on arXiv. In short, scientists are still hard at work. And with any luck, we’ll get there eventually.