Irish scientists have registered a world first in the production of a substance called graphene, an advanced material that looks set to revolutionise many products from electronics and plastics to touchscreens and batteries.
Graphene is widely described as a “wonder material” that has astounding properties, but it is notoriously difficult to produce in large amounts of the highest quality and of a consistent size.
Researchers at Amber, the materials science centre based at Trinity College Dublin, have become the first to crack these two problems, using nothing more complex than a domestic blender. The breakthrough is hailed in the journal Nature Materials , given its international importance.
Amber has partnered with a UK-based company Thomas Swan Ltd to scale up the process and begin selling graphene both as a product itself and also integrated into products developed within the company.
Graphene is extremely valuable and competing labs around the world are engaged in trying to deliver it on an industrial scale. The market for graphene is expected to be worth $100 million by 2018.
"It is this wonder material that has properties that surprise people," said Prof Jonathan Coleman, a principal investigator at Amber.
Graphene is one of the strongest materials known, yet it forms perfectly flat sheets just one atom thick. It is completely flexible and can be used in countless ways to change the properties of products from beer bottles to computer transistors, he said.
“It is an amazing material that seems to have unheard of applications. If it is going to be used in these things, someone is going to have to make it in large quantities, and that is what we have done.”
Many labs have produced graphene using various methods but there has been only limited success, he said. “Producing graphene has been done by others too, but many sheets are defective, it is not perfect, and so its properties are not what they should be. What we have done is develop a method to make defect-free graphene in large quantities and in principle very large quantifies to tonnes,” Coleman said.
His group had been looking at the basic science behind graphene for several years. "Swan came in and said we see what you are doing, we will fund you to find a way to scale up this process. That happened two years ago and in two and a half years we have gone from first contact to the process, the patent and licence and a paper in Nature Materials ," he said.
Amber is based in the Crann nanotechnology centre at Trinity and is partnered with University College Cork and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It receives major funding from Science Foundation Ireland.
A lot of scientific work went into achieving this, although the whole process seems disarmingly simple. It starts with nothing more complex than graphite, the soft carbon substance that people incorrectly describe as “lead” in a pencil. Graphite forms layers and layers of sheets that stick together. The challenge is managing to separate just one layer given it is no thicker than a single carbon atom.
Coleman and his group developed a water-based method to slide one sheet off the top at a time, like sliding one card after another off a deck of cards. The key to their method is floating graphite in water and spinning it up with a rotor which makes the graphene sheets separate from one another. They then add a “surfactant” that sticks to the sheets and keeps them apart.
"We just used a little bit of soap in the water," Coleman said. "You could probably do it at home in a kitchen blender. We demoed the process in a Kenwood blender from Argos worth €39.95 and added a bit of Fairy Liquid. You can sell Lthis as a green process."
This was an advance that “USA, China, Australia, UK, Germany and other leading nations had all been striving for and have not yet achieved”, said Minister of State for Research Sean Sherlock. The breakthrough showed that the Government’s strategy of backing science while encouraging industry links was working, he said.
The discovery will change the way many consumer and industrial products are manufactured. The materials will have a multitude of potential applications including advanced food packaging, high- strength plastics, foldable touchscreens for mobile phones and laptops, faster broadband and batteries with dramatically higher capacity.