Irish researchers develop world-first graphene innovation
24 April 2014
Researchers in AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science centre headquartered at Trinity College Dublin have, for the first time, developed a new method of producing industrial quantities of high quality graphene. Described as a ‘wonder material’, graphene is one of the strongest materials known, yet it forms perfectly flat sheets just one atom thick. It is completely flexible and can be used in countless ways to change the properties of products from beer bottles to computer transistors. It is extremely light and stronger than steel, yet incredibly flexible and extremely electrically conductive.
The discovery will change the way many consumer and industrial products are manufactured. The materials will have a multitude of potential applications including advanced food packaging, high-strength plastics, foldable touch-screens for mobile phones and laptops, super-protective coatings for wind turbines and ships, faster broadband and batteries with dramatically higher capacity than anything available today.
Thomas Swan Ltd has worked with the AMBER research team for two years and has signed a licence agreement to scale-up production and make the high-quality graphene available to industry globally. The company has already announced two new products as a result of the research discovery (Elicarb®Graphene Powder and Elicarb® Graphene Dispersion).
Until now, researchers have been unable to produce graphene of high quality in large enough quantities. The subject of ongoing international research, the research undertaken by AMBER is the first to perfect a large-scale production of pristine graphene materials and has been highlighted by the prestigious Nature Materials publication as a global breakthrough. Graphene is extremely valuable and competing laboratories around the world are engaged in trying to deliver it on an industrial scale. The market for graphene is expected to be worth $100 million by 2018.
Prof Jonathan Coleman, professor of chemical physics at Trinity College and AMBER, and his team used a simple method for transforming flakes of graphite into defect-free graphene using commercially available tools, such as high-shear mixers. They demonstrated that not only could graphene-containing liquids be produced in standard lab-scale quantities of a few 100 millilitres, but the process could be scaled up to produce 100s of litres and beyond.
At the start of the process, graphite is used, which forms layers of sheets that stick together. The researchers then have to separate just one layer, which is a considerable challenge given that it is no thicker than a single carbon atom. Using a water-based method, Prof Coleman and his team ‘slid’ one sheet off the top at a time – they floated the graphite in water and spun it up with a motor, which separated the sheets. They then added a surfactant that sticks to the sheets and keeps them apart. Prof Coleman said that his team ‘demo-ed’ the process in a Kenwood blender from Argos worth €39.95 and added a bit of Fairy Liquid as a surfactant.
“This shows how industry and academic collaboration can lead to research of the highest calibre, with real commercial applications,” he said. “This paper combines basic and applied research and contains elements of physics, chemistry, materials science and chemical engineering. It brings together academic expertise with the wealth of experience provided by Dr Keith Paton, Thomas Swan’s researcher who is working with us here on site in AMBER. Graphene has been identified as a life changing material and to be involved at this stage of development is a wonderful achievement.”
Harry Swan, managing director of Thomas Swan, said the project had speedily progressed from initial discussions in 2011 through to product launch in early 2014. “This research and licence offers us the opportunity to produce and deliver a truly revolutionary material to many industries globally,” he added.
Prof Coleman’s discovery shows that Ireland has won the worldwide race on the production of this ‘miracle material’. This is something that USA, China, Australia, UK, Germany and other leading nations have all been striving for and have not yet achieved. This announcement shows how the Irish Government’s strategy of focusing investment in science with impact, as well as encouraging industry and academic collaboration, is working.
Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and chief scientific adviser to the Irish Government said the research represented a significant global achievement for Prof Coleman and AMBER. “The research and licence agreement with Thomas Swan is an example of the real industry partnerships which SFI is establishing and developing,” he said. “This research discovery opens the door for industry worldwide to bring their graphene ideas to commercial reality and is an example of the innovative research being conducted by the internationally renowned SFI research centres.”
Thomas Swan Ltd, who has partnered with the AMBER research team for two years, has to date invested €750,000 in the research programme and plan a further collaboration with AMBER over the next 12 months with joint funding being provided by Science Foundation Ireland.
AMBER is an SFI-funded centre that is jointly hosted in Trinity College Dublin by CRANN and the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering, working in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and University College Cork. The centre provides a partnership between leading researchers in material science and industry to develop new materials and medical devices.
The Nature Materials publication is available to read here.
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