The future of graphene?
Graphene is no longer one product, but many. That’s the first thing Dr Ravi Shankar Sundaram said to me when we started our conversation about graphene. Ravi should know, as well as glittering academic credentials he is the market manager for emerging technologies at Oxford Instruments Plasma Technology (OI).
OI is the company that designs and manufactures equipment that can fabricate, analyse and manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular level. They are also involved in superconducting magnets and quantum computing. High tech indeed.
Graphene was first isolated in 2004 and won a Nobel Prize for its discoverers in 2010. It is one of the strongest and most thermally and electrically conductive materials in the world. It naturally attracted a lot of attention. Over the past decade graphene has gradually started to move from the laboratory to industry.
Ravi has played a part in progressing graphene on this journey. Over the past nine years he has been working on graphene and other 2D materials developing ways of making graphene by chemical vapour deposition (CVD) and atomic layer deposition (ALD) methods.
As well as making the material, he has been involved with developing prototype devices such as sensors and light emitters using these materials. It was no surprise then that he was also involved in the development of the Cambridge Graphene Centre in the UK.
So, Ravi is well placed to ask about his view of the graphene world. We talk about the use of graphene in carbon fibre composites. Companies such as Haydale are using graphene to enhance carbon fibre composites for aerospace and automotive markets. Adding graphene nanoplatelets can increase the compression strength and impact resistance. This means lighter stronger wings for aircraft, designs that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
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Graphene is also finding applications in printed electronics. The Cambridge Graphene Centre recently announced a novel way of creating graphene nanoplatelets as a conductive ink that can be used for printing. This opens the way for cheaper printed electronic circuits for devices such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) antennas that are used from everything from passports to electronic tags attached to everyday items that we buy in shops.
Ravi’s view spans many markets; he is also paying close attention to energy storage. Here graphene is making an impact at the R&D stage because its high surface area makes it ideal for batteries and also for supercapacitors. The promise of graphene is to create energy storage systems with increased range that can be charged in a fraction of the time of current battery technology. Dongxu Optoelectronics has developed a battery called the G-King which reportedly recharges within 15 minutes.
You will have heard of Lithium-Ion batteries, and will soon be hearing about Carbon-Ion batteries from companies such as ZapnGo who have developed a Carbon-Ion charging pack that will charge an iPhone in just 5 minutes.
This is all fascinating stuff and here in the present. What about the future? This is where Ravi spends much of his time anticipating the next big things. Remember his first comment that graphene is no longer one product but many. Part of the answer is found in the applications of graphene in all these new products and others.
What Ravi really points us to are developments in the R&D pipeline. Graphene is just one of a class of new two dimensional (2D) materials. Since the isolation of graphene many other 2D materials have been discovered. These are materials with exotic names such as Molybdenum Disulphide, Boron Nitride and many more.
2D materials are a new class of compounds for material scientists to play with. Think of them as flat layers that can be sandwiched in different ways to give new combinations of transparency, strength, and conductivity. This is new territory that is opening up to the people who will create the wonderful products of the future. This is why graphene is no longer one product but many. Watch this space…
Adrian Nixon began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a scientist and ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>