It has now been 15 years since we have been promised that graphene would revolutionise all industries. But in 2019, for the first time ever, researchers claim to have cracked the magic formula that will allow us to produce it on a huge scale and at low costs.

Paragraf

Colin Humphreys, as president of the company Paragraf, boasts being close to delivering on the promise that was made about graphene. This start-up – who is one of the visionaries when it comes to graphene – has “found a way to produce graphene at commercial scale” according to a Futurism interview on March 13th.

Credits: Paragraf

Simon Thomas, Ivor Guiney and Colin Humphreys, who are all Cambridge University Researchers, received support from their employer to create Paragraf. With 3,4 million euros in funding they were able to found what is called a ‘spin-out company’, that since its creation in 2018, has been focusing on the production of graphene sheets and making electronic devices from the material. Soon about to reach its first year, Paragraf already employs 16 people and already has 8 active patents.

In a communique published by the university, Paragraf explains that it has begun producing graphene on a commercial scale, by making sheets of 20cm in diameter. The company says that it will unveil its first electronic device made up of graphene “in the upcoming months”, without unveiling what type of device it will be.

A miracle with coveted properties

The benefits of graphene reside in its remarkable qualities, which completely justify its nickname of ‘miracle material’, as the Science et Avenir magazine had stated back in 2016. Graphene is a bi-dimensional crystal naturally found in graphite crystals.

Graphite is basically a stack of graphene layers, each of which is one atom thick. Beware not to underestimate its size, however, as it is one of the most resistant materials in the world all the while being very flexible.

Ten times harder than diamonds, it is also two-hundred times stronger than steel, and “ conducts heat ten times better than copper, the most commonly used conductor in electronics” adds Futurism. Furthermore, in an article published two years ago, Futurism tells us that “at room temperature, graphene is also capable of conducting electricity 250 times better than silicon, a rate faster than any other known substance.”

Graphene graphite

As early as 1947, Canadian Physicist Philip R. Wallace theorised graphene and pointed out its qualities. But this fascinating material was only synthetized in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two Manchester University researchers. Their pioneer work allowed them to win the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. On its website, The University of Manchester relives in detail the history of graphene’s birth and renames itself “the graphene house”.

A graphene layer
Credits: ACS Material-Graphene Factory

Every Friday after work, Geim and Novoselov conduct experiments that are not necessarily linked to their daily research. It is during one of these evenings that they noticed that graphite is actually made up of very small layers – layers of graphene.

They started manually peeling back these layers using adhesive tape, until they obtained one atom thick layers. This mechanical method of extraction is called exfoliation.

Since then, three other methods of extraction have been created to make graphene exploitable. One such method consists of heating silicon carbide to 1300 °C so that the silicon atoms evaporate, leaving only carbon atoms behind which then naturally rearrange themselves into graphene layers.

Disillusion

If 15 years ago it was presented as the magic solution to cracked phone screens or bad batteries, the infatuation surrounding graphene has somewhat deflated.

This is for good reasons: the manufacturing process is still costly and complicated, which prevents it from being a public commodity. In 2008, it cost 600 billion euros to make one measly metre of graphene. However, there are some like the physicist Jean-Noël Fuchs who point out that these costs mean nothing when you consider that carbon, graphene’s base material, is an unlimited and inexpensive resource.

Despite its coveted properties, the commercial use of graphene has been slowed by difficulties linked to its production. Paragraf explains that “conventional ways of making graphene at commercial scale involves using copper as a catalyst, which contaminates it and renders it useless for electrical uses.”

Furthermore, recent studies published by Phys.org has nuanced the praise that has been leveled at graphene. According to Queen Mary University of London researchers, graphene properties are altered by humidity. By studying graphene bi-layer behaviour, they surmised that from 22% humidity levels, water began infiltrating the material which had been called waterproof in the past. Graphene could then not be used the same in humid environments as it could be used in dry environments, and its properties would then vary throughout the year. Thus, this is an important element to take into account.

Limitless uses

Potential future uses for graphene still remain practically limitless. Firstly, graphene is a particularly interesting material for uses in the transport sector. NexxDrive, a website dedicated to the future of mobility, explains that certain bicycle manufacturers, in their quest for ultra light bikes, have already started integrating graphene into some of their models. Hence, by integrating graphene into the carbon fibre frame of a bike, they can reinforce its structure all the while making it slightly lighter.

In 2016, Dassi used this new generation of carbon fibre frame for the first time. This new frame weighs 750 grams, and has the same rigidity and resistance properties as its carbon counterpart which weighs in at 950grams. That is even more impressive knowing that only 1% of the frame is made from graphene.

Credits: Dassi Bikes

Researchers like those in Paragraf have been working for years to evolve this technology all the while reducing its cost. If we are to believe the latter’s announcement at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress in March 2019, this objective has now been reached. The English start-up hopes for example to replace current transistors’ silicon chips (fundamental component of most electrical devices) with chips made from graphene. This could have the result of making electrical devices ten times faster.

Furthermore, Paragraf explains that graphene could increase the precision of electrical and chemical sensors. That is to say “graphene has the potential to transform a large amount of industries, notable electronics, energy, and healthcare” explains Colin Humphreys, Paragraf’s president.

Healthcare

Graphene is equally as interesting for uses in healthcare. With the impressive budget of 1 billion euros, the European research initiative Graphene Flagship also wants to take graphene from labs to the European market. “This European program began five years ago and was given ten years to develop uses for graphene and other bidimensional materials.”, explains Jose Antonio Garrido, who is vice-director and group leader at the Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group (ICN2), which is a partner to Graphene Flagship.  

The logo of Graphene Flagship

Also present at the Mobile World Congress, Garrido describes their latest prototype: the development of graphene sensors. These sensors of a new type fall within the definition of “direct neural interfaces, devices which can record and stimulate cerebral activity.”

All that is needed is to take advantage of an “open cranium” operation place sensors on the brain surface. The electronic signals are then simply sent by an external device, “like a computer, a machine that produces an artificial voice, or an artificial limb.” In the medical sector for example “the aim would be to offer tools to doctors so that they might better detect and understand certain illnesses” like epilepsy, he explains.

“We are using graphene sensors because it is a material that can easily be integrated to flexible substrates, and it is also highly sensitive” Garrido adds, “with this technology, we want to build a new generation of direct neural interfaces.” He hopes that one of their devices will soon obtain the authorisation to be tested on humans at The University of Manchester, and that it will change the lives of many people.    

Author: Malaurie Chokoualé Datou