Jan 262012
 

It produces bulk quantities of high quality crystals of graphene

 
A breakthrough by University of Ulster scientists could transform the production and industrial use of graphene, a powerful and versatile material that comes from graphite, the carbon in pencil lead.

They have discovered a simple, low cost and environmentally friendly way to bulk produce high quality ‘graphene nanosheets’ from common flakes of graphite and hope to turn their patented process into a commercial success.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. When scientists first isolated stable graphene layers in 2004, graphene was hailed as the new “wonder” material heralding a new era in nanotechnology research.

Graphene’s unusual electrical and mechanical properties mean that it has many potential uses: it is just one atom thick; 200 times stronger than structural steel; it outperforms copper in conducting electricity; it is almost impermeable; it is so stretchy that a tiny drop could cover several football pitches; it is transparent, flexible and from a readily available raw material – graphite.

For all its versatility though, it presents many challenges, not least the cost of mass producing pure graphene, which is why the breakthrough by Ulster’s scientists is so significant.

Professor Pagona Papakonstantinou, Professor of Advanced Materials Ulster’s Engineering Research Institute at the Jordanstown campus, says their discovery could revolutionise everything from new nanoelectronics to construction, to energy storage and generation technologies.

“Graphene’s unique properties will lead to many potential applications, from carbon-based nano-electronics to medicine and healthcare. For example, it could be used in personal medical sensors, high-performance computing, lightweight components for planes, electrocatalytic electrodes for biosensors, fuel cells and lithium batteries. But for any of these possibilities to be realised, we need a cost effective process to mass produce high-quality graphene.”

Professor Papakonstantino, who leads the Carbon Based Nanomaterials Group at Jordanstown, explains: “Imagine that graphite resembles a book and each individual page represents a graphene sheet. However, the ‘pages’ are stacked together. So, we grind the graphite flakes with a small amount of ionic liquid to separate each page and at the same time tear each page into even smaller pieces to produce graphene nanosheets. We have found that prolonged grinding in time will produce tiny pieces called graphene quantum dots.

“Graphene has been produced by various methods before now but the methods involved used hazardous chemicals and lengthy techniques. Our method is simple, green and cost-effective but even more importantly, it produces bulk quantities of high quality crystals of graphene.”

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