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War on fake flake graphene

Clean room @ the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials

Graphene is increasingly touted as a wonder material which will revolutionize our production processes. As one of the first 2D materials, so called due to their single-atom thickness, graphene is hotly discussed in the nanotechnology sphere.

“My first loves in life were magnetism and superconductivity.”

Dr. Antonio Castro Neto is one of the researchers who has contributed most significantly to the establishment of a theoretical understanding of graphene. For 15 years Castro Neto has worked closely with “personal friends”, the two recipients of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were awarded for their groundbreaking experiments on graphene.

Both in collaboration, and with his own projects, Castro Neto has worked to establish the groundwork for graphene’s imminent applicability. Since establishing himself in the field of graphene theoretically, he has founded and currently runs the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials (CA2DM) in Singapore, in order to expand the practical applicability of graphene.

Prof. Antonio H. Castro Neto Director, Centre for Advanced 2D Materials

Graphene is a hexagonal carbon lattice, which exhibits the strongest bonds in nature. The strength of these bonds provides a range of characteristics to graphene. Graphene is stronger than steel, flexible, and conductive to heat and electricity. “I think the most exciting thing that happened in the last year or so is that we discovered graphene can also be a superconductor,” Castro Neto recalls.

The possible applications for this material are wide-ranging. From the macro to the micro scale, graphene can be applied to various technologies to improve them. Castro Neto shared a few of his favourite potential applications with us, to illustrate the potential of graphene.

“If you put graphene on a ship, you can increase the lifetime of the hull by a factor of 10. There is no corrosion on the ship for a very long time. Graphene also has antibacterial properties. When you coat a ship with graphene the bacteria do not grow on the surface, so the barnacles who live on those bacteria also don’t attach. Essentially you protect the ship from carrying barnacles around the globe, mitigating an environmental problem. Simultaneously, because the barnacles are not there the friction of the ship is greatly reduced, which means that the ship consumes less fuel.”

“A graphene solar sail would be so light that we would be able to accelerate space probes very close to the speed of light. Probes, for instance, to Alpha Centauri. The distance is around 5 light years, so we would be able to create these space probes with graphene, and maybe, in one generation we could send a space probe to alpha centauri and receive information back.”

“On the nanoscale, we can make solar cells using graphene as the transparent conducting electrodes. These solar cells can be so thin, down to 20 angstroms thick. These would be extremely thin solar cells which can be highly efficient because graphene conducts electricity very well.”

Those are potential future applications, however, which have yet to be vetted in an experimental setting. To date the adoption of graphene technology has been slow, though there are some industries which have already adopted graphene into their production processes.

“The first industries to use graphene are the chemical and petrochemical industries. Essentially they are mixing graphene in polymers, resins, and so on to make these resins better, to make them resistant to chemical attack, to make them electrically conductive, heat conductive, fire retardant, all these things. This is already happening all over the globe.”

The major factor restraining graphene adoption into other markets is a bottleneck in production. Graphene is purportedly sold on the internet, but “essentially nobody in the world is making graphene on an industrial scale yet. There is no quality control. There are no standards for graphene production yet. There are a lot of people producing a very fine graphite powder and selling it as graphene.”

“Industries are ready to produce goods with this material. It’s just that there is no reliable supply. By now we understand graphene extremely well. We know how to make it. We know the limitations. We know the capabilities. The question is about producing this material in large scale.”

“We need [graphene production] standards now, not in ten years. Because if there are no standards now people will keep buying bad material. The properties of this material will not be the properties of graphene. There will be a feeling that graphene is not fulfilling its full potential, which is not true, because we know that in the lab graphene really delivers everything that it promises. The problem is that in the open market, without quality control, people are buying something that doesn’t really work.”

Fortunately, the CA2DM has spearheaded a study on sources of graphene. As the first graphene centre in the world, the CA2DM has grown into all the various sectors of this field, conducting research on everything from theory to industrial application.

“Essentially we are a shared facility set up where people can have access to the best equipment in the world to do research in two dimensions. There are so many different lines of research, because the centre has more than 50 professors now. More than 200 researchers work in the centre. The range of things that we do is huge. We have people working on medical implants with graphene. We have people working with desalination membranes with graphene. We have people working on new materials like transistors made of black phosphorus, or molybdenum disulfide, all sorts of things.”

While his personal research has been slowed by administrative affairs at the CA2DM, Castro Neto is still very happy with the role he’s able to play in the field of 2D materials as a whole. “Of course it has an impact on my scientific research, my scientific output. However, it’s very rewarding when you see things working, and people writing amazing papers. You know that you have contributed a little bit to make that happen. It’s very rewarding for me to be able to help in this sense.”

Graphene is increasingly touted as a wonder material which will revolutionize our production processes. As one of the first 2D materials, so called due to their single-atom thickness, graphene is hotly discussed in the nanotechnology sphere.

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