The Great Graphene Race

Added March 1st, 2012 by Anthony David

UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) will soon invest £50 million, subject to conditions, in graphene research and technology and help establish the UK as a research hub of the wonder material. The effort is expected to result in the quick commercialization of graphene technologies in the UK.

David Willetts, UK’s Minister for Universities and Science, said, “This significant investment in graphene will drive growth and innovation, create high-tech jobs and keep the UK at the very forefront of this rapidly evolving area of science. With a Nobel Prize and hundreds of published papers under their belts, scientists in the UK have already demonstrated that we have real strengths in this area. The graphene hub will build on this by taking this research through to commercial success.”

EPSRC Chief Executive, Professor David Delpy, said, “The applications for commercial use of graphene are vast, including the creation of new materials and the manufacture of innovative electronics. The £50 million in additional funding is an important step in ensuring we can reap the benefits of those applications.” He added, “The race to be the first country to produce commercial products is well and truly on.”

The focus on graphene technologies is not a monopoly of the UK; several nations are spending millions of dollars to benefit from the extraordinary properties of the mineral and to develop viable techniques of producing graphene in the forms required to manufacture applications.

Researchers have been struggling to develop a scalable and simple technique to create graphene patterns for new electronic applications. Researchers from several institutes and universities in South Korea have jointly developed a technique whereby several steps involved in the long-used but complex method of lithography have been eliminated. This could result in the low-cost but large-scale production of graphene patterns for many types of electronic devices. Professor Kwang Suh of Korea University said, “This process provides a scalable and compatible methodology for the large-scale and roll-to-roll production of graphene patterns.”

Meanwhile, researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University have developed a graphene-based transistor design that would allow more compact RF electronics leading to faster circuits. The university’s G-FET (graphene field-effect transistor) could result in applications operating in the terahertz range. Such a range is useful in radio astronomy, radar, and process monitoring.

Nashville’s Vanderbilt University researchers said that graphene is five times thinner than conventional anti-corrosion coatings while also being just as effective and transparent. Using the anti-corrosion properties of graphene is not very difficult either. It can be applied by just rubbing a piece of graphite over the surface to be protected. The research report notes, “nickel surfaces coated with four layers of mechanically transferred graphene corrode four times slower than bare nickel.”

The anti-corrosion strength of graphene was studied by growing a one-atom-thick layer of graphene on a copper piece, which corroded seven times slower than usual. This technique could be utilized in products that would benefit from graphene’s small size, weight and transparency such as copper interconnects in computer chips, designer goods, high-tech equipment (aerospace, super cars, etc.) and implantable medical devices.

The significance of this find is quite important since the anti-corrosion materials market is a serious market in the US. A 2002 study reported that the total corrosion cost across the US was $276 billion, almost equal to its military spend.

Among other research developments, researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) have shown that graphene can be used to toughen carbon nanotubes in polymer composites to obtain fibers that are exceptionally tough. The production method promises to be cheap and easy to up-scale. Other studies have proved that graphene oxide has a strong future in many biological processes such as DNA and protein analysis, drug and gene delivery, and also intracellular tracking.

Financial research company Technavio predicted late last year that investing in graphene will produce a CAGR of 58.7% during the 2015–2020 period. The challenge currently is in developing cheaper production techniques. The company listed graphene as a promising investment opportunity that would be difficult to beat over the next decade. The rapid developments indicate the industry is well aware of the potential of the material and is leaving no stone unturned to rapidly commercialize graphene applications.

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