A graphene-driven industrial revolution is forthcoming, according to the University of Exeter’s Professor Monica Craciun, and while this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this university or that enthuse over its latest research, Professor Craciun sure got our attention. That’s because Exeter’s new graphene breakthrough involves two of our favorite subjects, robots and kitchen gadgets.
A Graphene Production Module For Your Kitchen
For those of you new to the topic, we’ve called graphene the nanomaterial of the new millennium because its unique and powerful electronic properties can lead to a new era of lighter, faster, more energy-efficient gear including photovoltaic cells and electric vehicle batteries.
However, as painstakingly detailed in a recent article in Chemistry World, graphene is notoriously difficult to produce in reliable, consistent, commercial-scale quantities.
That’s where the University of Exeter comes in.
According to an announcement by Exeter earlier this week, a research team headed by the aforementioned Professor Craciun has been able to deploy high-quality graphene “grown” in a new industrial device developed by the company Moorfield Nanotechnology, which it calls a cold wall CVD (chemical vapor disposition) system.
The new CVD system is about the size of many typical kitchen gadgets such as microwave and toaster ovens, four-slice toasters, bread makers, and really fancy juicers. So, just imagine if you could produce high quality batches of graphene in your own kitchen.
Aside from saving graphene suppliers the trouble of building entire manufacturing facilities, according to Exeter, the new device can grow graphene 100 times faster than possible using conventional methods, at a fraction of the cost.
To gild the lily, Exeter claims an improvement in quality, too.
The journal Advanced Materials has all the detail about the new graphene machine. CVD is a common process for making ultrathin materials, but typically it is used as a “hot wall” system.
The hot wall system involves heating copper coils to about 1,000 degrees Centigrade in a quartz furnace for several hours, which aside from an enormous amount of energy also takes a lot of time.
It also involves copious amounts of methane, the chief component in natural gas, and based on the natural gas news this week, we’re sure Pope Francis would give it the stinkeye.
Cold wall CVD, in contrast, involves heating only the copper coils. The Exeter team explores several different cold wall methods before settling on one developed by Moorfield Nanotechnologies, called “resistively heated stage” cold-wall CVD:
This method provides a more uniform substrate heating, it reduces the chemical reactions which can take place in the gas phase at high temperature known to contaminate graphene and it allows for very fast cooling rates, which have been shown to enhance the quality of graphene grown by CVD on copper foil.
Here’s a nifty video that provides more detail:
Rise, Graphene Robots, Rise
The Exeter team used a number of different nano-analytic tools to determine the quality of the resulting graphene, and then put it to the test by using it to create a transparent, flexible touch sensor.
The new sensor could be used in flexible — as in, wearable — electronics, but the team seems more excited about the prospect of using it for “a truly-flexible electronic skin that could be used to revolutionise robots of the future.”
By robots, we’re assuming the team means what you usually think of when you think of robots, an articulated machine or perhaps a Terminator-style cyborg.
That’s a big jump up from other graphene “robots.” In 2011, for example, the University of Science and Technology of China developed a tiny actuator (sort of like a robot muscle) using a layer of graphene.
Similarly, the University of Illinois developed a humidity-sensing “robotic germ” earlier this year, by peppering a bacterial spore with quantum dots, or nanoscale specks of graphene.
On the other hand, researchers at the University of California–Berkeley are already conjuring up visions of larger robots, such as a biomimicry “soft robot” that responds to light thanks to a graphene based hydrogel.
Check out their YouTube for a ghostly-looking demonstration:
By the way, if Exeter and graphene ring a bell together, you’re probably thinking of GraphExeter, a new graphene compound invented at the University.
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