Flat out: being two-dimensional isn’t always a bad thing

Trinity College Dublin is hosting a three-day meeting to discuss the possibilities for the latest in flat technology and its applications in medicine, electronics and many other areas

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 01:00

The future is flat, and things will never be the same, according to 180 scientists who are attending a conference in Dublin. The latest flat technology will find its way into electronics, replacement hips, new kinds of batteries, lighter aircraft and a host of other applications.

Trinity College Dublin is hosting the packed three-day meeting, Flatlands: Beyond Graphene. Here, scientists and nanotechnology experts will hear about the latest two-dimensional materials that are going to cause big changes.

These remarkable new materials form sheets that are very thin – not thin in the common sense, but really thin: just one atom thick. When it comes to flat, it doesn’t get much flatter than the diameter of a single atom.

Graphene – sheets of pure carbon exfoliated from graphite – is one such 2D material. It has been the focus of much scientific attention over the past 10 years as researchers have rushed to study and find uses for such an unusual material.

It has caught the attention of the European Commission, which has agreed a €1 billion graphene research budget, including €500 million in EU funds and matching money from member states willing to take part. It is important enough to be considered a “flagship” initiative, and Prof Andrea Ferrari, the chair of its executive board, who is in Dublin for the event.

“The title of the flagship is graphene, but it was always the mission of the flagship to look at all these other two-dimensional materials,” says Ferrari, who is also the director of the graphene centre at Cambridge University. He presented his own research yesterday at the conference.


World leader

The world’s top scientists on 2D materials are in Dublin because Trinity itself is a world leader in this field. Prof Jonathan Coleman and Prof Valeria Nicolosi and their teams are leading the charge in the Amber research centre at Trinity, funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

Coleman developed the first cheap and effective way to exfoliate graphene in 2011, and then began stripping sheets off other 2D materials. His work was published in Science and was its most cited paper in 2011.

Both scientists are also European Research Council grant holders and have international reputations for their work. They published a review of the field in Science last year, which included about 550 materials that produced sheets.

“They come with a host of different chemical species,” says Nicolosi, who is chairing the Flatlands conference. “Each has specific properties – for example, metallic, semiconductor – some are brittle or mechanically robust, some have thermal properties. This conference is going to be focused on all of these two-dimensional materials but not graphene.”

Trinity has been involved in this research since early on. “Amber would be regarded as one of the leading research centres in two-dimensional materials,” says Coleman. “That gives us a great advantage in that we can attract leading researchers to the meeting.”

He likens materials that form these sheets to a deck of cards. His method to separate these cards from the deck one by one in order to make them usable was very low-cost: a kitchen blender and a bit of washing-up liquid.

His work with Nicolosi has shown there are limitless options to pursue in terms of applications. “For every application you can think of, there will be a two-dimensional material for you.”

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