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There is no disputing graphene is strong. But new research by Rice University and the Georgia Institute of Technology should prompt manufacturers to look a little deeper as they consider the miracle material for applications.

The atom-thick sheet of carbon discovered this century is touted not just for its electrical properties but also for its physical strength and flexibility. The bonds between carbon atoms are well known as the strongest in nature, so a perfect sheet of graphene should withstand just about anything. Reinforcing composite materials is among the material's potential applications.

But materials scientists know perfection is hard to achieve. Researchers Jun Lou at Rice and Ting Zhu at Georgia Tech have measured the fracture toughness of imperfect graphene for the first time and found it to be somewhat brittle. While it's still very useful, graphene is really only as strong as its weakest link, which they determined to be "substantially lower" than the intrinsic strength of graphene.

"Graphene has exceptional physical properties, but to use it in real applications, we have to understand the useful strength of large-area graphene, which is controlled by the fracture toughness," Zhu said.

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