It looks like nothing more than microscopic chicken wire, but a number of Massachusetts institutions are betting that graphene, a form of carbon built in layers one atom thick, will spark a new technology boom.
One of the strongest and most highly conductive materials ever measured, graphene is so lightweight and versatile that its potential uses seem limitless: as a replacement for silicon that will make superfast computer chips; as a fabric that will create “smart’’ clothing; even to make solar energy panels that can be rolled up or folded.
That’s why engineers and scientists across Massachusetts and the industrial world are promoting graphene as a miracle material. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities, as well as companies like Cabot Corp., the giant chemical company in Boston, are hoping Massachusetts can become a center for a burgeoning graphene industry.
“Research and development and early-stage industrialization of products is something Massachusetts does very well,’’ said David Carnahan, president of NanoLab Inc., a Waltham nanotechnology company that is beginning to dabble in the graphene field. “I don’t see why Massachusetts shouldn’t become a leader in the graphene area.’’
But the science is so new that many of graphene’s expected applications have yet to be invented. Even so, there has been something of a rush toward graphene, with thousands of related patent applications filed in recent years, according to information from the Patent Office.
“It has a lot of potential, but everyone is waiting for a real killer app to be developed from graphene,’’ said Peter Dichiara, a patent attorney at the WilmerHale law firm in Boston.
Interest in commercializing graphene jumped in 2010, when two researchers from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom won a Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in the material.
In September, MIT established a center to study graphene devices and systems. Scientists and engineers at Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston University, and other schools are also delving into graphene-related research.
In November, Cabot signed a nonexclusive licensing deal to use a Michigan company’s graphene technologies, including a method for manufacturing graphene from graphite, a form of carbon used in, for example, pencils. Cabot has also established a graphene research team, comprised of eight engineers and scientists, at its Billerica laboratory facility.
“Graphene has the potential of being a game-changing material, but it’s going to take a long time to develop and to see how it plays out,’’ said Gregg Smith, director of new business development at Cabot, a leading producer of the “carbon black’’ compounds used in car tires, plastics, ink, and other products.
Defense contractor Raytheon Co., which is based in Waltham, confirmed it is looking into graphene applications in a number of areas.
“Graphene has the potential to improve the performance of many systems,’’ Mark E. Russell, vice president of engineering, technology, and mission assurance at Raytheon, said in a statement. “Raytheon is currently working with leading universities to evaluate graphene, improve the performance of devices, and study the application of graphene in multiple potential applications.’’
Tomas Palacios, head of MIT’s new graphene research center and an associate professor of electrical engineering, said Massachusetts is in “very good shape’’ for being a major developer of graphene technologies, thanks largely to the presence of major research universities. But until more is known about practical applications for graphene, it’s hard to say whether the state’s manufacturing sector will be able to capitalize on any coming boom, he said.
“That’s part of the reason why we started the [graphene] center,’’ Palacios added. “We need to create the ecosystem connecting industries with researchers.’’
Massachusetts is considered to be among the top three states in the nation for graphene-related research, along with California and Texas, industry officials said. But the real competition appears to be coming from overseas.
South Korea’ Samsung Group, along with Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, is heavily investing in research to see whether graphene’s conductivity will work in flexible touch-screen technologies, Palacios said. Cellphone maker Nokia Corp., of Finland, is also very interested in graphene’s potential touch-screen applications, he added.
“We’re certainly not the only game in town,’’ said NanoLab’s Carnahan. Japan, with its vibrant nanotechnology sector, is another potential player.
Greg Bialecki, Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic affairs, said his agency has an eye on the potential long-term economic benefits of the graphene phenomenon.
“We are constantly working with the business and academic community to identify where the state can be helpful in accelerating the growth of exciting opportunities like this,’’ Bialecki said in a statement.
Sameer Sonkusale, head of Tufts University’s nanotechnology research center, said he’s bullish about the future of graphene in Massachusetts. He himself has filed two patent applications for gas sensors that use graphene, he said. “We’re very interested in commercializing our products.’’
As for Massachusetts being a future leader in graphene research and development, it only makes sense, Sonkusale said.
“Massachusetts is an intellectual capital, so I don’t see a reason why Massachusetts can’t be ahead in this,’’ he said. “It could take a while for it to take off, but when it does, we should be right there.’’