An international research team has developed a way to manufacture graphene without using any specialized equipment. For an idea of how important this breakthrough could be, consider the difference between today’s smart phones and the stationary touch-tones that represented the peak of telecommunications tech just a generation ago, and translate that into the next generation of smaller, faster, cheaper, and more versatile electronics.
Graphene has been called the “miracle material” with good reason. It has unique capabilities as a semiconductor, it is flexible and virtually transparent, and its distinctive lattice-like structure gives it super powers (by one estimate, it has 200 times the strength of steel), and it can even amplify light.
If graphene were to replace other common semiconductors like silicon, the result would be an incredibly high speed and energy efficiency combined with equally incredible low mass.
A hurdle for graphene to leap
Graphene, which was only discovered in 2004, consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, and therein lies the problem: how do you manufacture an atom-thin product?
The first attempts were worthy of a highlight in Make Magazine: researchers simply pressed a piece of adhesive tape to a chunk of graphite, and lifted off a layer of atoms.
That’s all well and good for starters, but fabricating graphene with reliable quality under controlled conditions has bedeviled researchers, who have been searching for low-cost ways to churn out graphene for further study in the lab, let alone for commercial application.
The Polish solution
The new method was developed by researchers from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Research Institute in Lille.
They started with an off-the-shelf, powder form of graphene called graphite oxide, which is manufactured by weakening the bonds that hold a chunk of graphite together (if you’d like to get your hands on some, it’s made by the Materials Science Division in North East Institute of Science and Technology in Dispur, India).
The oxygen in graphite oxide inhibits graphene from acting as a semiconductor, so the team mixed it with a sulfur-containing organic compound called tertathiafulvalene. When the mixture was subjected to an ultrasonic cleaner, the graphite oxide was reduced to graphene flakes.
The liquid mixture was then deposited on an electrode using a low-cost application method. Once dried, the result was a smooth coating with flakes of graphene on the surface. The last step involved a chemical reaction to remove the molecules of tertathiafulvalene.
So there you have it, Makers. You can probably order up some tertathiafulvalene at any chemical supply company, and if you can’t afford an ultrasonic cleaner, your local rent-to-own might have one.
No, seriously, DIY graphene is at least conceivable, but we’re a long way from that. For now, the Polish team is hopeful that its method could be reproduced at practically any well-equipped laboratory, without the need to order new equipment.
On the other hand, graphene and other high-tech DIY may be closer than you think. To give a push to the high-tech DIY movement overall, DARPA — the legendary Defense research agency that created the Internet — has just teamed up with the shared Maker-friendly workshop network TechShop in a crowd-sourced collaboration to prod U.S. manufacturing into future methods of fabrication.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey
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