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Graphene technology

Graphene is a two-dimensional (one-atom-thickness) allotrope of carbon with a planar honeycomb lattice.  In this 2-D layer structure, each carbon atom is bonded (connected) to three other atoms, in a configuration that provides great mechanical strength and outstanding electrical, optical and thermal properties. Graphene therefore has the potential to replace or supplement many other materials, in a vast range of potential applications.    

As an example of how graphene may impact future industrial strategy,  the limits of silicon capabilities for electronic integrated circuits are getting closer; Graphene with its unique nano-scale electronic properties could offer an alternative for the next generation of faster and smaller electronics in 21st century.

Graphene socio-economic impact stems from a strong, EU-wide R&D effort; its impact has also spread beyond the materials sector to multiple markets such as retail, medical and healthcare, manufacture of electronics and vehicles, transport, and telecommunications. The worldwide potential market for Graphene goes into the hundreds of billions euros.

Although the concept of graphene, as single layer sheets of carbon atoms, has been known for many years, it was only in 2004, that physicists at the University of Manchester and the Institute for Microelectronics Technology, Chernogolovka, Russia, first isolated individual graphene sheets by using adhesive tape. This discovery enabled research groups around the world to measure the physical properties of graphene, and discover that it performs better in many ways than all other materials. This discovery is considered a breakthrough in the nanotechnology era, bringing the concept of single atomic components closer to reality (and Nobel prizes to its discoverers).

The concept of 2-D single-atom sheets is now being extended to many other materials, such as boron nitride and graphene oxide.  Optimum sheet compositions will be application-specific.

Carbon (in Graphene format) is an exceptional element capable of producing versatile structures with outstanding properties, previously not observed at the nano-scale:

  • Ultrahigh electron mobility at room temperature
  • Superior thermal conductivity, higher than diamond and carbon nanotubes
  • Great mechanical strength (100 times greater than the same thickness layer of steel)
  • Remarkable flexibility
  • Lightness, 0.77 milligrams per square meter ( 1 square meter graphene hammock would support a 4 kg cat but would weigh only as much as one of the cat's whiskers)
  • Recyclable product that is eco-friendly and cost effective in its use

 

Scientific and technological trends

Scientific trends

  • Potentially an ideal material for the use of spintronics, exploiting electron spin for solid state devices.
  • May be a suitable material for the construction of quantum computers using 2-D circuits
  • High nonlinear Kerr coefficient (that is, change in the refractive index in response to electric fields) makes Graphene extremely interesting for ultrafast photonics.
  • Standard equations for atoms do not suffice to study unconventional properties of graphene. The need for relativistic-like considerations makes graphene a unique bench-top to study the quantum theory for relativistic particles

 

Trends in production

Intensive efforts are underway worldwide, to develop production technologies that can provide sufficient quantities of material, of the required quality, at low enough cost.  Several methods could be utilized to synthesize and produce graphene sheets, depending on which physical properties are important for the targeted application. Large-scale commercial exploitation will be dependent on improvements in materials production methods.

Methods under investigation include:   

  • Liquid suspension graphene oxide followed by chemical reduction
  • Reduction of graphite oxide monolayer films e.g. by hydrazine (N2H4), annealing in argon/hydrogen
  • Reduction of ethanol by sodium metal, followed by thermal  decomposition of the ethoxide product, and washing with water to remove sodium salts
  • Dispersing graphite in a proper liquid medium that is then applied ultrasound and then centrifuged.
  • Thermal decomposition of SiC, or epitaxial (growth of one crystal over another) growth of Graphene on a SiC substrate;
  • Epitaxial growth on metal substrates (copper, nickel and less so on Ruthenium and Iridium) with the help of carbon based gasses (ethane, methane, propane). Combined with standard lithographic methods, may also lead to chip fabrication.
  • Exothermic combustion reaction of certain Group I and II metals, including magnesium, and carbon bearing gases, including carbon dioxide
  • Chemically unzipping carbon nanotubes creating graphene nanoribbons.

 

Trends in applications

  • Graphene may have revolutionary applications in electronics. The ultra-high electron mobility and electronic conductivity of Graphene has the potential for faster and smaller transistors consuming less energy and dissipating heat faster than silicon based devices. However structural modifications to the simple 2-D sheet form are needed, if graphene is to be used as a semiconductor analogous to silicon, germanium or gallium arsenide. 
  • Creation of circuit interconnects with graphene nanoribbons, changing the conductivity with their shape.
  • Creation of Graphene quantum dots for quantum confinement.
  • Handling terahertz frequency signals. Graphene may be a bridge from the gigahertz range (where silicon is currently at) to higher frequencies required in photonics.
  • Reaction of graphene with hydrogen atoms suggests that graphene can serve as an atomic-scale scaffold.
  • Hydrogen storage devices
  • The high surface-to-mass ratio of graphene makes it suitable for ultra-high capacitors and light-weight batteries with higher storage capacity than today's Li-ion batteries  
  • Fabrication of chemical sensors capable of detecting single molecules
  • Chemically modified graphene sheets have been used to fabricate single bacterium bio-devices and  DNA sensors
  • Bio-medical applications, including artificial retinas, bio-sensors for cancer and drug delivery
  • Transparent conducting films for solar cells
  • Touchscreens, liquid crystal displays, organic photovoltaic cells, artificial retinas and organic light-emitting diodes.
  • Flexible and wearable electronic devices.
  • Light weight composite materials integrated in communication systems such as new airplanes, bus and cars (as illustrated by the SmartForVision concept electric car by BASF and Daimler)
  • Graphene oxide membranes allow water vapour through but no other liquids; this could be very important for biofuel production, desalination and the alcoholic beverage industry.
  • Composite materials requiring high strength
  • Lighter and stronger cars and planes that use less fuel, generate less pollution, are cheaper to run and ecologically sustainable
  • NEMS applications such as pressure sensors and resonators

 

It has to be noted that the previous candidate electronic materials for replacing silicon have failed to do so, despite having potentially better performance, because the capability of mass production is so well-established, for silicon.  More fundamental and basic materials research and development of device production processes is required to determine if Graphene might become the substitute, or complement, for silicon.

Graphene science and technology relies on one of the most abundant materials on Earth, carbon. It is an inherently sustainable and economical raw material.

Many of the possibilities it offers are not yet fully understood, and their analysis requires highly sophisticated methods; to quote the Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek « graphene is probably the only system where ideas from quantum field theory can lead to patentable innovations ».

The most essential technological challenge that graphene faces, is the hurdle of controlled production of large sheets. Several approaches have been utilized to produce graphene sheets, but still there remains the question of robustness and reproducibility of the methods.

The prospect of rapidly chargeable lightweight batteries would give environmentally friendly transportation a major push and advance the large scale implementation of electric cars as a key component in urban and suburban transportation in Europe. Strong and lightweight composites would allow us to build new cars, airplanes and other structures using less material and energy, and contribute directly to a more sustainable Europe.

The list of opportunities is huge and grows day by day. The most important combinations are probably those which have not been explored yet, as they would lead to new, revolutionary applications, which were unthinkable prior to the ground-breaking experiments on Graphene in 2004.

Graphene could also have a large impact in health and medicine: for instance, developing artificial retinas, bio-sensors and biological imaging (that could help in cancer treatment). Patents have also been filed on the use of Graphene in drug delivery.

Regarding risks, it has been observed that Graphene oxide together with some metal ions may lead to observed breakages of the DNA if put together; this raises concerns about the potential toxicity of Graphene oxide, for instance depositing itself in the respiratory tract.

European commercial exploitation and patentability of the intellectual property created by discoveries in EU Graphene research are core issues. Many patents are being filed to address the novel methods in production and novel approaches for applications.  Patents are currently dominated by Korea, China and the US with the EU lagging behind. This issue needs to be addressed.

It is also important to devise key performance indicators to measure the progress of graphene and related materials work in scientific, technological impact on economy and society. Graphene is being studied intensively in several EU projects; t new he Graphene Flagship project will measure progress against a number of these indicators.

Also, it is critically important to increasingly engage engineers at universities and industry to participate in the product creation process to ensure that we will have products that are needed by the community and those local industries can fabricate them. The Graphene Flagship will solicit white papers on graphene commercialization through engineering that will be the basis of funded through the open call in the areas of, for example, nano-composites, smart packaging, energy applications, sensors and optoelectronics.

For the sake of resource efficiency, it is crucial to achieve alignment between the different components of Graphene work in Europe: to coordinate the Graphene Flagship core project with other EU funded, national and regional project activities. There has to be a governance structure from scientists, technologists, industrialists and society representatives whose responsibility is to make sure that Europe benefits the most in ultimately in growth, jobs and prospects. The governance should also include the funders of the different components.

Regarding funding, the trends in national funding show that graphene research is seen as a priority in many European countries with increasing support over the past few years. As a result, there have been several new initiatives and programmes (UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Poland) reported since October 2011, and additional programs are being planned or launched at this time (e.g., by the DFG in Germany). The national Member States funding for graphene was up to 50 million euro in 2012.

The EU has politically engaged in the co-funding (mostly with member states) of a 1 billion 10-year program, the Graphene Flagship. There are also (around 75) EU co-funded projects for a total funding of up to 90 million euro with an annual funding of nearly 20 million euro in 2011. More than half of the EU funding is invested in people and training through Marie Curie Actions and ERC grants. In addition, funding for personnel is also provided within the collaborative research projects (NMP and ICT funding).

As far as private funding is concerned, a large number of European companies have already expressed strong interest in developing graphene-based products, and are actively pursuing both fundamental research and technological developments in house as well as in collaborations with academia. These include, amongst others, Airbus, Thales, Texas instruments, Alcatel, Aixtron, Bosch, Fiat, Volvo, Repsol , ST Microelectronics and Nokia.

Supporting Evidence

EU Graphene Flagship programme (http://www.graphene-flagship.eu/GF/index.php)

How could grapheme transform the future?, Abbie Jones / BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19918703)

3D printing with graphene is coming, and it will power the future, Meghan Neal (http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/3d-printing-with-graphene-is-coming-and...)

This material will power the future - if somebody can profit from it, Lee Bruno (http://www.wired.com/business/2013/04/tracking-graphenes-move-from-scien...)

Graphene by the ton, Brian Wang (http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/06/graphene-by-ton.html)

Europe Bets €1 Billion on Graphene to Lead a Tech Renaissance, Bernhard Warner  (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-02-08/europe-bets-1-billion-on...)

FET Flagship: Graphene (http://horizon2020projects.com/excellent-science/fet-flagship-graphene/)

Routes towards defect-free graphene (http://phys.org/news/2013-02-routes-defect-free-graphene.html#nRlv)

What is graphene? Here’s what you need to know about a material that could be the next silicon, Signe Brewster (http://gigaom.com/2013/07/15/what-is-graphene-heres-what-you-need-to-kno...)

Graphene and Human Brain Project win largest research excellence award in history, as battle for sustained science funding continues (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-54_en.htm)

New wonder material replaces graphene for future electronic devices (http://www.kurzweilai.net/new-wonder-material-replaces-graphene-for-futu...)

Challenges: 
  • Can a graphene “killer app”- which possesses distinct advantages over existing technologies yet can also be commercially competitative – be developed?
  • Other ‘breakthrough’ technologies have been discovered but then failed to reach development or commercial profitability at any large scale afterwards, for example, carbon nanotubes in the 1990’s. Why might graphene be different?
  • Processes for the large-scale industrial fabrication of graphene have only just begun to emerge in 2013. Will these be enough to support the growing level of industrial demand?
Opportunities: 
  • As a material, graphene offers a wide range of individual benefits and attributes. This potential versatility has yet to be fully exploited on a combined level suggesting ‘novel’ discoveries and applications are still likely.
  • The benefits of other emergent production and manufacturing technologies could be further enhanced if graphene can successfully be used or integrated with them, for example, 3D printing.
  • Successful exploitation of graphene in certain products could have transformative social and economic effects beyond any particular technology itself, for example, how might cheap and highly efficient solar panels change the lives of the 1.4 billion people currently without access to electricity worldwide?
Questions: 
Although widely touted as a ‘wonder material’ might the perceived lack of any single, short term practical application hold back its longer term development?
At least 10 other two-dimensional materials exist which exhibit complimentary properties (such as molybdenum disulfide). What are the implications of this? Might any exclusive impact of graphene be reduced as a result?
We can consider graphene research as roughly ten years old. Is the impetus to develop the material and its applications over the next decade likely to be successful? Is it too short a time or not enough?
Leading image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Timeframe: 
2020
Desirability: 

Likelihood: 

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