Tag: graphene

Europe risks losing out on commercialising graphene

Graphene may have been first discovered in a European university, but it looks like it will be America or Asia that actually benefits most from it.

Following Andrej Geim and Konstantin Novoselov’s work at the University of Manchester, there has been a clamour to find useful applications for TechEye. Barely a week goes by without a new eye-catching use for graphene.

The discovery led to Nobel prizes and knighthoods, and with both the UK and the EU investing in development, it is hoped that it could lead to some lucrative uses down the line.

However, according to Professor Jari Kinaret, Head of the Nanoscience Area of Advance at Chalmers University, Europe is running the risk of leaving the glory to other regions more suited to full development.

Kinaret is part of of an initiative called the Graphene Coordinated Action, which is attempting to get some of the €1 billion funding that is being offered by the EU in the form of two ‘flagship projects’.

He believes that Europe is not able to compete in “integrating the whole chain, from basic research to product” – as Europe is not particularly skilled “compared with the Asians or the Americans”.

The number of patents being produced in each area is like comparing “Jupiter, Saturn and Mars”.  

Samsung is one of the many companies involved in commercialising graphene, and has been steadily amassing its own patents.

“Something is wrong here and we’re going to fix it,” Kinaret said.

Kinaret’s initiative is one of six shortlisted for the funding. If his is picked, he claims it will drive further investment in developing graphene research which will, in turn, lead to further funding.

“If we are selected, it would mean a substantial increase in grants for European graphene research – up to 50 percent more than at present,” Kinaret said.

Samsung cracks graphene transistor conundrum

Samsung is throwing its considerable weight behind graphene production, claiming a breakthrough that should overcome problems with using the material in transistors and open the doors to future development in electronics.

Various firms have been throwing money at developing graphene for future applications in replacement of silicon, with big hitters such as IBM and Intel achieving considerable headway.

Now Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology research arm has claimed that it has overcome one of the most fundamental problems with using graphene in a circuit – its ability to switch from one state to another like a semiconductor.

In the past, even Intel and IBM have written off graphene being used in a CPU, in its current state at least, due to the difficulting in getting the material to switch. But Samsung believes it has found a way to overcome this with a new transistor structure.

While graphene has many extraordinary properties that would make it very useful in electronics, such as extremely high electron mobility, the inability to switch between a ‘0’ and ‘1’ state makes it difficult to use in semiconductor applications.

Samsung points out that [revious attempts have been made to turn semi-metallic graphene into a semiconductor, but this has resulted in a decrease in electron mobility.

The team at Samsung’s research arm believe that by re-engineering the basic operating principles of digital switches, they have found a way to get graphene to switch between states without losing its coveted properties.

Samsung says that it has developed a ‘Schottky barrier’ control device named a ‘Barristor’ which can stop current in the graphene by lifting the barrier to a cut off point.

The firm claims to have also expanded the research into basic circuit components such as logic gates and logic circuits.

Samsung owns nine patents relating to the Barristor, which will go into the pile marked ‘graphene patents’ that it has been amassing.

According to the Intellectual Property Office, Samsung was leading last year in the number of patents for the ‘wonder material’.

This covers a range of applications and Samsung, like various other tech firms, has been eyeing the more imminent use of graphene in flexible touchscreens – with smartphones and tablets likely to be among the first ways that consumers see graphene implemented in their devices.

According to chip industry sooth-sayers Future Horizons, it could be a few years before we start to see processors using graphene in mainstream applications, and it appears that its apparent destiny to replacing silicon, in some quarters anyway, is far from assured.

However, if Samsung is keen on staying at the forefront of future chip development it will be interesting to see how other powerhouses respond.

Graphene to boost solar cell efficiency

As well as promising to revolutionise chips by stealing the crown from silicon, graphene could be used to create solar cells that are miles more efficient.

According to a team at MIT, graphene, which has properties that are often been described as ‘wondrous’, could be the key to boosting the efficiency of dye-sensitised solar cells.

Dye-sensitised solar cells are a new breed of solar cells which are cheaper and easier to produce than conventional photovoltaic panels which adorn many houses.  

One problem with new solar cells is that the efficiency is not great when compared to silicon or thin film cells, the latter of which is set to grow in popularity.

However, the use of graphene in production has helped to increase the energy output of the dye-sensitised cells.

These produce energy when photons knock electrons into a layer of titanium dioxide, before relaying them to an anode.  

By adding graphene into the mix it was possible to bring 52.4 percent more current into the circuit. This is because the sheets of the one atom thick graphene are able to act as bridges which can make transferring electrons a lot easier.  

Indeed, one of the most hyped qualities of graphene since its discovery by Professor Geim at Manchester University is its high electron mobility.

So as well as being used in chips inside products in the future, graphene could also play a role in powering them too.

IBM labs make graphene photonics breakthrough

IBM has been keen to stay at the forefront of developments with graphene, producing the first integrated circuit based on the material last year.

Now, the firm’s labs have been working on developing further properties of the material, with advances in graphene photonics. 

Scientists have so far been able to fabricate the one atom thick material discovered at the University of Manchester into conductors, insulators and semiconductors. 

As well as some impressive properties that make the material a candidate for ultrafast chips in, IBM has uncovered photonic qualities in graphene.

According to IBM, researchers may be able to create terahertz photonics modulators for optical connections.  This opens the possibility for transmitting large amounts of data at incredibly high speeds.

There are currently very few methods of manipulating light in terahertz waves IBM says, but the “exceptional optical properties” of graphene, which absorbs light from far-infrared to ultraviolet, allow this.

It has been possible to enable terahertz frequency oscillations in single atom graphene, but researchers need to develop a ‘superlattice’ of multilayered graphene in order to allow a resonant frequency strong enough for photonics.

The method used by the scientists meant that the frequencies could be tuned specifically in the terahertz band.

According to IBM, the researchers are working on tuning the graphene superlattices for the infrared frequencies used in current optical communications equipment.

Semiconducting graphene spin-off to power future computers

Scientists have come closer to creating electronic devices using that wonder material graphene, modifying it to become a semiconductor.

It is thought over the coming years graphene could eventually replace silicon in computer chips.   However, various problems have to be overcome before that is truly a possibilty.

One of these problems has been that graphene related materials have existed only as conductors or insulators, rather than semiconductors like silicon.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reckon that they have found a potential solution to this problem with a material related to graphene.

The researchers modified graphene to create graphene monoxide (GMO), synthesised from graphene.

Unlike graphene it is a lot easier to scale up the conductive properties of GMO, and like silicon it exhibits semiconducting qualities necessary in computing.

The team created GMO while looking at graphene-based carbon nanotubes, mixing them with tin oxide nanoparticles to create a hybrid material for use in cheap sensors.

Findings prompted them to make graphene out of graphene oxide (GO), a cheaply produced insulator that exhibits much of the same qualities as graphene.

An experiment with GMO in a vacuum to reduce oxygen unexpectedly aligned the carbon and oxygen atoms rather than destroying them.  

The team had thought that the experiment would get rid of the oxygen atoms but instead this ordered the atoms into GMO, a semiconducting material that does not exist in nature.

But while the team points out that GMO works well at a small scale in lab conditions, the next step is to find out whether it will work at an industrial level.

'Ion pen' used to draw graphene circuits

Graphene is already being talked about as a potential replacement to silicon, but certain problems have to be negotiated around if the wonder material is to power a future generation of chips.

There are various barriers to the commercialisation of graphene – for example, band gap problems – meaning that circuit production from one atom thick sheets is still a while away. 

Another problem is how to reliably manufacture the material on a large scale without damaging graphene’s ‘wonder’ properties.

A team of researchers at the University of Florida has developed a new technique that stops the thermal ‘etching’ process in circuit production from affecting the graphene.

Creating graphene patterns on top of sheets of silicon carbide at high temperatures of 1,300 Celcius, the team was able to vaporise the silicon. This left just carbon, which is then able to grow into pure graphene.

Usually an etching process would be used, but this can introduce defects or chemical contaminants which can reduce graphene’s electron mobility – one of its prime qualities.

The team’s technique meant that it could grow tiny areas of graphene with great accuracy.  Furthermore, by implanting gold or silicon ions, the team was able to drop the temperature at which grapheen formed by 100 degrees. 

This meant then were able to ‘draw’ on the implanted ions wherever they wanted, before increasing the heat to 1,200 Celcius.  In turn, the rest of the silicon carbide remained the same, while the ‘ion pen’ markings formed the graphene circuitry.

Graphene supercapacitors boost battery charge

Consumer devices may be getting smaller and smaller but the holy grail of ultra high density and speed batteries remains elusive.   Just take a look at the bulky and apparently slow charging battery of the new iPad 3.

However, researchers at UCLA reckon that a simple method of supercapacitor production could bring about incredibly powerful batteries in the future.

Supercapacitors are able to store much more energy than the ones found amongst the innards of computer circuitry.  

The benefits of supercapacitors are clear, with high charge and discharge rates meaning you wouldn’t have to spend days watching the battery icon on a device slowly fill, and charge cycles that don’t leave your battery gasping after a few months.

Unfortunately it has proved very difficult to create versions that have densities that would rival conventional batteries.

To do so requires electrodes in the battery with specific properties, such as extremely high conductivity.  This also means the necessity to provide more surface area than previous attempts at supercapacitors, which used carbon electrodes.

Rather ingeniously researchers at UCLA have managed to do this by producing electrodes using that most wonderful of materials, graphene, and a DVD optical drive.

Graphene has the inherent properties that suit the needs of highly conductive electrodes, and the atom thick material also benefits from a massive surface area.

What the researchers have managed to do is produce the graphene electrode simply using DVD disk-coating techniques.  A film of graphite oxide is put onto a disk inside a LightScribe DVD drive, and is laser-scribed to produce the electrodes.

Although this may sound like a rather DIY method, it is still arguably more advanced than the Blue Peter-esque graphene sticky-tape production methods made famous by two Manchester Uni professors.

According to tests undertaken by the researchers, the resultant electrodes work well and maintain ”excellent electrochemical attributes under high mechanical stress”.

This means that they are able to hold easily as much charge as conventional batteries, while charging up ”a hundred to a thousand times faster”.

Furthermore, unlike other forms of supercapcitor the laser-scribed graphene version also allows for flexible electronics.  The researchers apparently put the graphene electrodes under constant strees, but they worked fine, giving ”promise for high power, flexible electronics” in future.

Graphene optical modulators to boost ultra-fast internet

Another use for wonder material graphene, then, as scientists claim it will greatly enhance lightning fast downloads and boost optical computer chips with new modulators being demonstrated.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the material graphene, which is the source of fervent research in a massive variety of fields, could open the doors for greatly enhanced optical communications, as well as in the burgeoning field of optoelectronic computing.

A team at the university is about to release its findings following research into the application of graphene as an optical modulator, a component which controls the speed that data packets travel through networks.

If the speed of data pulses can be increased then it means greater swathes of information can be transmitted at high speeds.

The team has managed to demonstrate a working graphene modulator with broad optical bandwidth and high operational speed. These factors are essential for optical interconnects in integrated optoelectronic systems.

According to one researcher, the modulation efficiency is already shaping up comparably to more traditional semiconductor materials. One of the advantages is the size of the graphene modulator, which is vastly smaller in volume.

The researchers reckon that this could allow graphene based devices which are much more compact and can function at 10 times faster than what is currently available.

If this is the case then we could see, for example, full 3D films being downloaded in just a few seconds.

And with optical computer chips not far off, the size and speed of the graphene based modulators will certainly be of interest to developers.

Health fears hamper graphene development

While labs across the world continue to unearth more and more revelatory properties of graphene, the potential dangers of working with the material are often overlooked.

A study by scientists at the University of Edinburgh has shown that the near-universally acclaimed wonder material could pose serious health risks.

Following its discovery by two researchers at Manchester University – now both in possession of Nobel prizes and knighthoods – atom-thick graphene has exhibited many astounding qualities.  With the potential to revolutionise the chip industry and elsewhere, the UK government has ploughed £50 million into moving lab developments to the commercial sphere.

There is understandable enthusiasm, but Edinburgh researchers have raised concerns about manufacturing the material.

New evidence has shown that disc-shaped graphene particles, known as nanoplatelets, could pose risks to the lungs of workers involved in producing the material in factory conditions.

The nanoplatelets, less than an atom-thick and invisible to the naked eye, are also aerodynamic, meaning that they could quite easily be breathed in by workers, causing organ damage.

Concerns over health risks could potentially put the brakes on lab work moving to shop-bought applications.

Graphene chips are not likely to see the light of day until at least the tail end of the decade.  However, developments continue apace, and applications in touch screens, for example, are expected a lot sooner.

Professor Ken Donaldson, Chair of Respiratory Toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, told TechEye that with graphene heading towards large scale production the potential risks need to be taken into consideration.

“We appear to be on the cusp of graphene use, if that is true we need to be careful that people are not being exposed to large amounts,” he said, speaking with TechEye. “It stands to be produced in huge amounts – our work is to say that its shape is not like the average particle.”

According to Donaldson, the unusual flat shape is what could cause the health risks: “What we think is that graphene in the form of nanoplatelets come as quite an unusual shape – most particles are roughly spherical, these are quite different,” Donaldson said. “They are quite thin but they can be quite big, although they don’t weigh much.”

Donaldson said that there are cells which ingest particles which land in the lung, however, “the only ones that usually get to the deep part of the lung are quite small”.

“But,” he continued, “this is a particle which is big and flat and can get into the deep part of the lung, so when these lung cells try and deal with it is too big for them.”

The fact that lung cells measuring 10 microns are trying to deal with 30 micron graphene platelets is what causes problems, with most debris entering the lungs closer to around 3 microns.

“It is like trying to take a bite of a massive pizza, the cells are not able to ingest the flat platelets,” Donaldson said. “In the natural world you don’t get a lot of particles which are flat like that. Because of this it can be a risk.”

Donaldson insists there is no reason for hysteria. “We are not trying to draw a moratorium on graphene, but we need to be aware of this,” he said. “The whole point of the exercise is to warn people to prevent health risks, to monitor what is in the air and prevent people from being exposed to this. If people are people are exposed to this over a long period of time it could lead to some sort of chronic lung disease.”

In order to deal with this he believes more substantial work is needed looking into the potential risks. “There is hardly anything being done with graphene – you really need to an inhalation study in animals to really test the hypothesis if it’s going to done in large amounts,” he said. “Someone needs to invest in doing this kind of thing. It costs a lot of money to do an inhalation study like that but there is definitely a need for that type of research.”

So far, there have not been any reported ill-effects from graphene production, but with work still in its infancy, it will take time before any dangers could become apparent.

“There haven’t been any cases so far – it usually takes years of highish exposure to show effects, so probably hasn’t been enough time to develop yet,” he said. “But we are still on the cusp of large production so we need to be vigilant.”

Graphene gets new boozy application

A new boozy application of graphene has been discovered, and it is one that is likely to be just as popular in a brewery as in a lab.

Nearly every week a strange new application is found for graphene, which continues  to exhibit some incredible attributes. Not only is the atom-thick material the thinnest known, it is the also the strongest, stiffest, most flexible and the best conductor of heat and electricity.

Since its discovery scientists across the world have been working flat out to find useful applications for the technology.  Now though it seems that they have finally cracked it.

According to the Nobel prize winning professor from the University of Manchester, who actually discovered the super-material, graphene can be used to distill hard liquor.

Professor Sir Andrew Geim, one of the sticky tape wielding graphene discoverers, revealed that he has been cooking up some graphene moonshine in labs recently.

Geim discovered that a membrane of graphene oxide placed over a container of water was able to stop any gases or liquids passing through, apart from water that is.   He was surprised to discover that the membranes – hundreds of times thinner that human hair – would let nothing but evaporated water molecules through while blocking everything else out.

Perhaps reliving his old student days, the Professor then set up a home brew kit and used the membrane to distill some vodka.  Geim, who says he did it all “for a laugh”, found that the vodka became stronger and stronger over time as the water evaporated out.

Whether graphene will be used in to give your drink an extra kick anytime soon, we don’t know, but we can certainly see some applications for the park bench liquor connoisseur.

It is thought that it could be 2020 before graphene starts getting used in microchips, so we can expect a graphene-based cocktail to hit swanky bars around that time too.