Graphene is hot, hot, hot

Graphene: Super hype or next big thing?

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Super substance

The question is becoming what can't graphene do? The material, which is a form of carbon (what’s known as an allotrope of carbon), was recently described by the National Physical Laboratory as having many extraordinary properties including superior mechanical stiffness, strength and elasticity, electrical and thermal conductivity while being optically active, chemically inert and impermeable to gases. The possession of all of these properties in a single material makes graphene a potentially disruptive technology in sectors like optoelectronics, flexible electronics, bioelectric devices, energy storage and ultrafiltration, the lab stated. Indeed, take a look at just some of the recent applications being ascribed to the material.

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Primer

What is graphene?

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Credit: RNGS Reuters
Charting success

The following chart shows the growth of inventions involving the manufacture or application of graphene over the last decade. Includes the top companies or institutions with the most patents for graphene technology. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene."

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The new lightbulb

A company called Graphene Lighting will this year turn on a dimmable grapheme-based light bulb it says will cut energy costs by 10%. The bulb designed at Manchester University in the UK contains a filament-shaped LED coated in graphene. Graphene Lighting PLC is a spin-out based on a strategic partnership with the National Graphene Institute at The University of Manchester to create graphene applications.

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Commercialization

Samsung recently claimed it made a breakthrough that could speed up the commercialization of graphene, paving the way for new types of mobile devices, wearable technology and flexible displays. Specifically the company said it worked with Sungkyunkwan University to uncover a new method of growing large area, single crystal wafer scale graphene. Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology said: "The new method synthesises large-area graphene into a single crystal on a semiconductor, maintaining its electric and mechanical properties. In the past, researchers have found that multi-crystal synthesis - the process of synthesising small graphene particles to produce large-area graphene - deteriorated the electric and mechanical properties of the material, limiting its application range and making it difficult to commercialize."

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Water, water everywhere

An atomically thin membrane with microscopically small holes may prove to be the basis for future hydrogen fuel cells, water filtering and desalination membranes, according to a group of 15 researchers from a variety of laboratories including Oak Ridge National Lab, Penn State and Northwestern. The researchers recently published their results in the journal Nature Communications.

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More on that water stuff

The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently said it demonstrated an energy-efficient salt water desalination technology that uses a porous membrane made of strong, slim graphene. Removing salt and other minerals from our biggest available source of water—seawater—may help satisfy a growing global population thirsty for fresh water for drinking, farming, transportation, heating, cooling and industry.

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Major breakthrough?

In one of the possibly biggest research discoveries involving grapheme, a new technique invented at Caltech to produce graphene at room temperature could help pave the way for commercially feasible graphene-based solar cells and light-emitting diodes, large-panel displays, and flexible electronics. Existing techniques require temperatures that are much too hot—1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,000 degrees Celsius—for incorporating graphene fabrication with current electronic manufacturing. The ability to produce graphene without the need for active heating not only reduces manufacturing costs, but also results in a better product because fewer defects, says Caltech staff scientist David Boyd, who developed the method.

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Credit: DARPA
Neural tissue

DARPA’s RE-NET program has developed new graphene sensors that are electrically conductive but only 4 atoms thick—hundreds of times thinner than current contacts (top middle). Their extreme thinness enables nearly all light to pass through across a wide range of wavelengths. Placed on a flexible plastic backing that conforms to the shape of tissue (bottom), the sensors are part of a proof-of-concept tool that demonstrates much smaller, transparent contacts that can measure and stimulate neural tissue using electrical and optical methods at the same time, DARPA says.

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Scotch tape solution

Graphene is a special material with crystals that are just one atom thick. Electrons pass through it with hardly any resistance at all, and despite being very flexible, it is stronger than any metal. The discoverers of graphene, Geim and Novoselov, famously made it by peeling graphite with Scotch tape until they managed to isolate a single atomic layer: graphene. Researchers at IDTechEx say graphene markets will grow from around $20 million in 2014 to more than $390 million in 2024.

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Grown here

Researchers at Institute for Advanced Materials have been looking at growing graphene on the back of copper-oxide as a method to rapidly make the substance. “If this proves to be the case, it should then be possible to use lithographic techniques to make all sorts of electronic devices from graphene in a commercially viable manner.”

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Battery quest

Researchers say graphene-based technology could be directed at the world’s insatiable appetite for battery power. Scientists at Europe's Graphene Flagship and the Cambridge Graphene Centre say “Graphene’s two-dimensional (2D) nature leads to a theoretical surface-to-mass ratio of ~2600 m2/g, which combined with its high electrical conductivity and flexibility, gives it the potential to store electric charge, ions, or hydrogen.”

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Credit: Graphenea.com
Ecoli destroyer

Carbon, the only ingredient of graphene, has very low toxicity, and could be used in human health applications. For example researchers at Graphenea say they have demonstrated a graphene-based system that can kill Ecoli.

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Cancer killer

Researchers have also used graphene to target cancer stem cells. A paper, published in the journal Oncotarget, showed that graphene oxide flakes were effective with six different cancers including breast, lung and pancreatic cancers. The paper suggest that graphene could be used to kill off “the reservoir of CSCs, which are frequently responsible for the spread or recurrence of cancer, and often left behind by currently available treatments.”

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Credit: VCU
Penta-Graphene

Scientists in China recently talked about what they called a “2D allotrope of carbon made up of pentagons or penta-graphene.” The scientists said this penta-graphene would be fairly stable and would be stronger than conventional graphene and be able to withstand higher temperatures, up to 730°C. It would also be a natural semiconductor.

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Microwave bouncer

According to the Graphene Flagship researcher group in Europe, a team of physicists led by Philippe Lambin from the Université de Namur in Belgium has found that a graphene plane can provide an effective absorbent shield against microwaves. The finding could see this two-dimensional material used to reduce microwave pollution and enhance the electromagnetic compatibility of future nanoscale electronic devices.

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It’s a robotic germ

University of Illinois at Chicago researchers developed a electromechanical device—a humidity sensor made of graphen-based quantum dots—on a bacterial spore. They call it NERD, for Nano-Electro-Robotic Device.

The system could be important in applications where humidity must be kept low, for example, to prevent corrosion or food spoilage. "It's also important in space applications, where any change in humidity could signal a leak,” researchers said.