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Published on December 2nd, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Next Solar Cell Breakthrough: “Perfect” White Graphene

December 2nd, 2015 by  

While certain US legislators have been determined to undermine their own country’s position at the COP21 Paris climate talks, back home the renewable energy science just keeps rolling along. In the latest move, the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has just announced the success of a new method for fabricating “virtually perfect” single layers of so-called white graphene for use in next-generation solar cells, fuel cells, and other clean tech devices.

The new development is a significant one because it pulls a theoretical potential out of the ethereal world and lands it on solid ground, where it can be scaled into mass production.

white graphene boron nitride (solar cells)

Better Solar Cells Through White Graphene

For those of you new to the topic, white graphene refers to a form of boron nitride, a crystalline compound of boron and nitrogen with a distinctive hexagonal lattice structure.

If that sounds a bit like graphene (first described by CleanTechnica as “the nanomaterial of the new millennium“), you’re on the right track.

Graphene possesses unique properties that are tailor-made for the next generation of super efficient, thin, lightweight, flexible electronic applications.

“White graphene” has similarly impressive qualities — even better, according to the folks at Oak Ridge:

The material, technically known as hexagonal boron nitride, features better transparency than its sister, graphene, is chemically inert, or non-reactive, and atomically smooth. It also features high mechanical strength and thermal conductivity. Unlike graphene, however, it is an insulator instead of a conductor of electricity, making it useful as a substrate and the foundation for the electronics in cell phones, laptops, tablets and many other devices.

A Kinder, Gentler Recipe For White Graphene

As with regular graphene, the sticking point is coming up with a low cost, high scale way to manufacture high quality sheets of white graphene. That’s where the new Oak Ridge white graphene development comes in.

The Oak Ridge team credits earlier research, for example at Rice University, with demonstrating the theoretical feasibility of using white graphene in electronic devices. Oak Ridge took it one giant step farther, with a practical, scalable demonstration of the process of converting a triangular form of the compound to “virtually perfect” sheets with a hexagonal structure.

The new process is almost identical to conventional chemical vapor deposition in a furnace, but with a “more gentle, controllable” regimen for releasing the necessary reactant. The more delicate approach leverages conditions inside the furnace to produce an improved outcome.

If you were guessing that it would be interesting to use white graphene as a substrate for graphene, you’re right on the money. You get some mighty interesting results when you combine sheets of regular graphene with white graphene. Rice University researchers have been developing ways to meld the two super-materials together, and members of the Oak Ridge team are also working on a way to merge them into a new material only one atom thick.

Science Gonna Keep On Science-ing

The study behind the new white graphene breakthrough was just published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in its Chemistry of Materials journal under the title “Synthesis of Hexagonal Boron Nitride Monolayer: Control of Nucleation and Crystal Morphology.

Oddly enough (or not so oddly as the case may be), the ACS connection brings us right back around to the aforementioned undermining of US interests at COP21 by certain federal representatives.

COP21 is only one target of the elected officials in question (okay so Republicans), who in their zeal to collect dollar bills from the fossil fuel lobby have taken the climate change denial ball and run with it.

That position locks the entire Republican Party into the position of denying accepted science, which lately has ramped up into the outright harassment of climate scientists by leveraging the oversight tools of Congress.

ACS has had enough of this nonsense, and last week it joined with six other A-list science organizations in a letter slamming Representative Lamar Smith of Texas (guess which party!) for his role in the anti-science crusade, specifically regarding his demands for information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

…These broad inquiries threaten to inhibit the free exchange of ideas across scientific disciplines not only for NOAA, but for other government experts and the academic and industry scientists with whom they collaborate.

We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy – relevant scientific questions…

Put it this way: when you lose the American Chemical Society, you are far, far gone.

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Image credit: 3-D structure of hexagonal boron nitride sheets and boron nitride nanotubes, courtesy of the Shahsavari Group via Rice University. 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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