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Unravelling the mystery of graphene, the “wonder material” invisible to the naked eye

Discovered in Manchester, the invisible 2D substance is currently being explored in an exhibition examining its history and revealing its potential.

The museum in Manchester is hosting Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond – the launch of which coincides with Manchester’s year as European City of Science. The carefully curated space hopes to introduce the public to a materialdiscovered in Manchester, which has been shrouded in mystery until now.

Graphene is essentially a single layer of carbon atoms, each of which is structurally-bound in the form of a honeycomb lattice – a hallmark of graphene distinguishing it from other carbon allotropes (different forms of the same chemical element) such as diamond and graphite. Though this may not mean anything to you, its implications will.

The complex arrangement of carbon atoms in graphene means it is the world’s first two-dimensional material – a million times thinner than paper, 200 times stronger than steel. It’s one of the most conductive materials we now know of, extremely light in weight and invisible to the naked eye.

Scanning transmission electron microscope image showing the hexagonal atomic structure of graphene. Each white spot is a single carbon atom. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Haigh, University of Manchester and Quentin Ramasse, EPSRC SuperSTEM Laboratory, Daresbury

It is properties like this which have caused scientists and innovators alike to speculate about graphene’s potential applications. It is impermeable to almost everything except water, which means places such as the Masdar desalination plant in Abu Dhabi can attempt to use graphene to make the process of turning salty sea water into clean drinking water “faster, cheaper and more energy efficient”.

Dotted around the exhibition are further imaginings of graphene-enabled technologies in the future: “batteries that last a lifetime”, “healthy clothes”, “personal flying backpacks”. When graphene’s properties are being looked at to improve the way we store energy, monitor our health and revolutionise flight, it is, as exhibition co-curator Danielle Olsen tells me, “under a lot of pressure to perform”.

For a material promising so much, it may come as a surprise to find out just how accidentally it was discovered. In 2004, Russian scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov were playing around with some sticky tape during one of their now infamous “Friday night experiments” in Manchester. They used the tape to isolate thin flakes of graphite, which they then continuously separated into layers which were just one atom thick. Graphene had been discovered and the pair went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

Andre (right) and Kostya (left) in their laboratory at the University of Manchester, 2010. Photo: Yana Audas, © Nobel Media 2010

For Geim, it was the spontaneity found in playful research which excited him and ultimately led to the discovery. From the beginning of his career, he was keen to resist against being pigeonholed into extremely niche areas of research– something which often happens to scientists. “In the case of graphene, I certainly checked it but I never used the words graphite or carbon in any of my previous hundred papers . . . it was completely out of my area of expertise,” he tells me.

It’s been 12 years since graphene’s discovery, and Geim is acutely aware that public curiosity around the material is boiling over. When asked what he would like visitors to understand about graphene from this exhibition, he said: “I think graphene has already perpetuated into public perception a little bit. It was in front of our eyes and under our noses for 500 years. One of the powerful messages of this story is that it shows how little we know about the world around us. The only thing that we still remain to find out is how much impact it will have.”

Geim stressed that the most remarkable thing about graphene is not quite the material itself but what can come from it; the material is “shorthand for all kinds of materials which are one atom or one molecule thick.” The discovery of graphene is creating a whole new field of two-dimensional materials, with boron nitride aka “white graphene” already being used, as well as two-dimensional tin and silicon.

Part of the challenge for the curators was making the invisible, visible. “It’s all about potential. It’s a really rich field for the imagination,” said Olsen. Graphene may not be at hand to gaze upon, but the exhibition capitalises on its invisibility by marrying science and art together to give graphene its full glitter.

The exhibition is part history lesson, part time capsule. It starts visitors off with a primer on the history of graphite and shuttles them forward to a near future in which graphite’s derivative graphene is represented through the stories of various scientists currently working on it. The former is captured in a room peppered with ornaments to show just how close graphene has been to us this entire time: model cannonballs and paintings of mines demonstrate where graphite has come from and how it has been used, while an inconspicuously-placed sticky tape roll gains far more attention than it would at a stationary store.

The latter section feels like a sterile, white laboratory. The walls are punched with squares of light which frame a number of images associated to current graphene research; images from the National Graphene Institute in Manchester and graphite mines in Sri Lanka are just some put together to highlight how work on graphene has prospered as a result of international collaboration.

Scientists at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester push the boundaries of graphene. Photo: David Shaw for Museum of Science and Industry

The room also holds little lockers which open up to reveal researchers and their work. One particularly notable figure profiled in these lockers is Dr Sang-Hoon Park of Yonsei University, South Korea, who has been working to turn graphene into “pompoms” via an intricate process. Two-dimensional graphene has low surface area but these pompoms have an increased surface area, meaning they can hold more charge. It’s an example of how capitalising on graphene’s high conductivity could change the future of energy storage. Meanwhile an art installation by Random International and a poem dedicated to graphene written by Lemn Sissay MBE aim to show visitors how this whole new field of research will inspire minds beyond science.

The exhibition has been sponsored by Haydale, a company honing in on graphene’s potential by focusing on its commercialisation along with various other two-dimensional materials. Speaking to Haydale CEO Ray Gibbs, he expressed how important he felt it would be to get graphene “from the lab into the real world.”

In light of Brexit, there have been fears surmounting aroundreduced funding for science research in the UK. For Haydale however, there seems to be little fear about Brexit and its possible hit on graphene. “For me where Brexit takes it, we trade internationally anyway so it makes no difference. From where I’m sitting I don’t think Brexit will make a difference.”

The exhibition will tour nationally and internationally and feels as though it will continue growing as graphene research continues to inform its commercialisation. What the exhibition is entirely accurate about is letting people know that these things take time. Co-curator Sarah Baines said: “We want people to get the reality of where graphene is.” Change by graphene is possible, but we will have to wait patiently to see those changes. “When aluminium was discovered, who knew it would fly us to the moon?” reads a board in the exhibition. I wonder then, if graphene will take us to Mars.


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The Truth About Graphene

Graphene expert Elena Polyakova explains what investors need to know about the up and coming nanomaterial.


The graphene market has the potential to totally transform the tech sector. Although the nanomaterial is only a decade old, it has already garnered worldwide attention for earning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. And, from an investor perspective, the market is equally exciting. Worldwide, the graphene market is expected to reach $220 million by 2026.

However, despite this sizeable market, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the technology. To dispel these myths and get the truth about graphene, INN turned to industry expert Elena Polyakova to hear her thoughts on the sector.

Polyakova has a long history in the graphene market. As the Co-Chief Executive Officer at Graphene 3D Lab (TSXV:GGG), she was instrumental in bringing the first graphene filament to market. Furthermore, she is the co-founder, CEO and President of Graphene Laboratories, a pioneer in the commercial graphene production market. Polyakova is also a well-respected speaker and educator about graphene. At the time of our conversation, she had just returned from an international conference in Italy, where she spoke with peers in her field about the future of the material.

And so, without further ado, here’s what Polyakova had to say about the nascent graphene industry.

Science behind the technology

Graphene entered the tech market with significant hype. Indeed, it’s initial discovery was so groundbreaking that it won scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. This award drew a lot of excitement towards the industry, as innovators in the tech sector saw vast potential. However, for some investors – particularly those coming from a mining and graphite background – the science behind graphene remained a mystery.

Graphene is a single-atomic layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. Even more basically, it’s a single layer of carbon. Polyakova explains that there are two ways of creating this material:  through a process termed Chemical Vapor Deposition, in which gases are decomposed at an elevated temperature, depositing carbon atoms on a metal substrate or by starting with natural graphite and isolating a single-layer graphene sheet. While Chemical Vapor Deposition is  expensive process as of now, graphene produced from natural graphite (inexpensive mineral) can be manufactured at reasonable price even today. Over the course of our conversation, Polyakova reveals that the price will continue to go down in the coming years, making the material especially well suited to be used in many commercial applications.

Early hype curve leaves investors wary

The science behind graphene lines up. However, the investing side of things has been a little more tumultuous. The early publicity caused by the Nobel Prize award led to a hype in the industry, with investors rushing to get a piece of the latest technology. However, as Polyakova points out, “early investors may have been disappointed in the market because the technology readiness was not high enough for fast entry into the commercial space.”

Analysts, such as graphene expert Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, agree. At the close of 2014, Ghaffarzadeh told Graphene Tracker that “there is more realism in the industry after the early days in which there was tremendous interest and hope. The rate of company formation in Europe and [the] US has certainly slowed, product concepts are becoming more tangible and companies are finding their focus areas instead of wanting to conquer all the disparate potential, media coverage is a little more subdued [and] company valuations are down even though many institutional investors are staying the course.”

The market has continued to develop in the ensuing year and a half. Investors are still wary of this downturn in the market, but there is growth for intermediary products that reduce time to market and decrease end user uncertainty. For Polyakova, composite materials are the best short-term bet. “Analysts agree that products based on graphene composites will be entering the market sooner,” she tells INN. Composite materials are materials formed by combining two or more materials with unique properties to create a new end material. Although “composite may sound fancy, it’s basically just plastic that has some graphene infused.” Despite the simpleness of this combination, graphene brings about huge potential to the field of plastics. With the introduction of graphene, it’s possible to “make plastic which is much better than the plastic material that is currently available.”

Ultimately, she sees a future where high-end electronics, such as cell phone touch screens, will use graphene. However, it’s “unlikely that that technology will reach commercialization in the next five years.”

Graphene market today

In the past, there were “too many unrealistic promises about graphene.” Many companies were chasing “too many opportunities at once and ultimately failed to deliver on these multiple fronts. And in some cases, companies were just taking advantage of the hype.” It’s the job of investors, then, to “look deeper and do due diligence” in today’s graphene market.

The best bet for investors is to consider companies that “focus and specialize in well defined applications.” For instance, “3D printing is a good example” because “people are willing to pay a high price for high end materials.” In the next several years, “graphene will enter into several more markets, including aerospace, the automotive industry, robotics and electronics.” What unites these industries, explains Polyakova, is “that they are all willing to pay premium price for advanced materials.”

Growth for the future

In the medium term, we’ll see even more expansion of graphene’s reach, as a lower cost makes it more accessible to sectors across the board. “As the price goes down, graphene composites will become more and more popular in many different industries.” The good news is that this future isn’t as far off as investors might believe. “People who are not very knowledgeable about graphene still think that it’s very expensive,” says Polyakova. However, the price for this material is steadily decreasing. According to the report “Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2016-2026,” a continual decline in average sales prices will accompany graphene revenue growth, meaning that volume sales will reach nearly 3.8 tonnes per annum in 2016.

The main problem affecting the market, then, is not cost but rather “processing and expertise.” Essentially, the graphene market is like mining in that, “You must start with very good raw material, if you want to get a good product.” However, “it’s essential to do all technological steps right, otherwise the end product will be poor.” As understanding and experience in graphene processing grows, the graphene market has a bright future.

Instead, it has the potential to dramatically impact specific high tech sectors and, as prices are driven down and production grows, this impact will reverberate throughout the tech sector as a whole. Therefore, the graphene market seems best suited for investors who can see through the chaff to see the real winners in this dynamic and ever-evolving market.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Technology for real-time news updates.

Securities Disclosure: I, Morag McGreevey, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: Graphene 3D Lab is a client of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.

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“Click”‐Triggered Self‐Healing Graphene Nanocomposites

“Click”-triggered room-temperature self-healing graphene-based nancomposites are designed. After damage, encapsulated self-healing agents are set free and form polymeric networks via a Cu(I)-catalyzed azide–alkyne “click” reaction. The use of highly dispersible graphene-immobilized Cu2O demonstrates excellent catalytic performance with extraordinary reinforcement in tensile strength, resulting in 100% crack healing at 20 °C after 36 h.

Sravendra Rana, Diana Döhler, Ali Shaygan Nia, Mahmood Nasir, Mario Beiner, Wolfgang H. Binder
Macromol. Rapid Commun., September 19, 2016, DOI: 10.1002/marc.201600466. Read article

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A graphene quantum dot (white) on top of a solar cell formed by silicon (Si) insulating (ITO) and metal (Au) layers. Source: Reproduced with permission from Tsai, M.-L., Tu, W.-C., Tang, L., Wei, T.-C., Wei, W.-R., Lau, S.P., Chen, L.-J. & He, J.-H. © 2016 American Chemical Society

Small flakes of graphene could expand the usable spectral region of light in silicon solar cells to boost their efficiency, new research from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) shows.

Solar cell materials have become significantly cheaper to produce in recent years, yet further cost savings are needed to make solar technologies commercially attractive. The prevalence of silicon in solar cells makes them a good target for efficiency enhancement.

“By improving the efficiency of silicon solar cells, we can provide a more cost-effective way for energy production,” says Jr-Hau He, KAUST associate professor of electrical engineering, who also led the research team.

Graphene quantum dots are small flakes of graphene that are useful because of their interaction with light. One of these interactions is optical downconversion, which is a process that transforms light of high energies into lower energy (for example, from the ultraviolet to the visible).

Downconversion can be used to boost solar cells. Silicon absorbs light very efficiently in the visible part of the spectrum, and therefore appears black. However, the absorption strength of silicon for ultraviolet light is much smaller, meaning that less of this light is absorbed, reducing the efficiency of solar cells in that part of the spectrum. One way to circumvent this problem is the downconversion of ultraviolet light to energies where silicon is a more efficient absorber.

Graphene quantum dots are ideal candidates for this purpose. They are easy to manufacture using readily-available materials such as sugar and by then heating them with microwave radiation. While the dots are almost transparent to visible light, which is important to pass that light through to the solar cell, they are efficient in converting UV light to lower energies.

The researchers integrated the quantum dots on a silicon solar cell device. The efficiency of the solar cells increased in comparison to control samples. For a mature technology to show a clear improvement in efficiency is promising, because it can be produced using an easy manufacturing process.

The test sample solar cells measured so far have not yet been optimized to be closer to the record-breaking performances seen in silicon. The researchers therefore plan to combine some other enhancement technologies previously achieved in similar devices, He noted.

“We have been successfully utilized surface engineering treatments, including fabricating nanostructures and passivation layers, to improve the light harvesting and the electrical properties of solar cells. By integrating these techniques all together, we hope that in the next few years the world record can be broken at KAUST,” he says.

Source: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology


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Lomiko Metals has announced that it will be presenting a summary of the Graphene Energy Storage Devices Corp. (GESD) Graphene Supercapacitor Project at the Battery Material Conference in Toronto September 2016.

GESD is currently working on scale-up of the technology and an in-field evaluation of the energy storage unit with Stony Brook University. The GESD-SBU team demonstrated design and implementation of a sealed high-voltage EDLCs energy storage unit. The unit is internally balanced, there is no need for an external circuit. The electrode is very cost-effective nano-carbon composite either of a commercial carbon or of graphene platelets with carbon nanotubes. The nano-carbon electrode materials were used for deposition and assembly of a working prototype of an internally balanced high-voltage energy storage unit. The bench-top prototype unit, tested up to 10 V, exhibited good discharge characteristics and charge retention. This development enables new compact energy storage solutions for grid and vehicular applications.

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Image: Left to Right: Marcus Cowie (General Manager, Austeng), Vito Giorgio (Graphene Plant Manager, Imagine IM), Ross George (Managing Director, Austeng), Dave Giles Kaye (Certification Manager and Business Development, Imagine IM) (Supplied.)

Image: Left to Right: Marcus Cowie (General Manager, Austeng), Vito Giorgio (Graphene Plant Manager, Imagine IM), Ross George (Managing Director, Austeng), Dave Giles Kaye (Certification Manager and Business Development, Imagine IM) (Supplied.)

Last night Austeng and Imagine Intelligent Materials jointly won an award for the establishment of Australia’s first commercial graphene plant.

The Australian Engineering Excellence Awards, Victoria, saw Austeng (a Geelong-based engineering company) and Imagine IM (a graphene technology company) take out the Innovation, Research and Development category.

The pilot plant has a capacity of around 10 tonnes per annum of the carbon-based nanomaterial, and was officially opened in North Geelong in June.

“Austeng thanks Imagine IM for the confidence shown in Austeng. Imagine IM has very much shown the way forward by recognising and embracing this new technology collaborating with universities on research, joining with local engineering/manufacturing and bringing on board a launch customer,” said Austeng managing director Ross George in a statement.

“This collaborative model has enabled Australia to take its place as a world leader in commercialisation of graphene”.

Phil Aitchison, Head of R&D and Operations at Imagine IM, said that bringing graphene innovations to market showed that Australia could be a world leader in manufacturing.

“Graphene is a platform technology and Imagine and Austeng have taken graphene out of the laboratory and into commercial application,” he said.

“We shall continue to advance our roadmap for large scale industrial uses of graphene for sensing and in smart materials.”

Imagine IM’s graphene will be released later this year in a smart geotextiles product from Geofabrics Australasia, and has been successfully tested in field trials.

For an interview from March in Manufacturers’ Monthly with Austeng and Imagine IM about the plant, please click here.

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