The role of America’s universities in the race to commercialize graphene - 02/28/14

The role of America’s universities in the race to commercialize graphene

Universities from across the United States have recently unveiled the latest research that could pave the way for the commercialization of graphene. Since its discovery in 2004, there has been much speculation about which country will be the first to harness the potential of this wonder-material, with South Korea and the United States emerging as strong contenders. 

A method for chemically mass-creating graphene nano-ribbons has been developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which may prove crucial to exploiting and controlling graphene’s conductivity. One of the main challenges faced by researchers across the world is how to turn graphene’s conductivity on and off, which is essential if it is to be used in digital electronics. Theoretical studies suggest that this may be possible if the electricity could run along a graphene nanoribbon that is 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of an average human hair.

Previous attempts to create nano-ribbons involved working in a top down approach by using lithography and etching process to cut the ribbons out of sheets of graphene. “Instead of starting with a large sheet of graphene and trying to cut it down to something small—the essence of a top-down approach—we decided to use a bottom-up approach, making small graphene nanoribbons by coupling even smaller organic molecules,” explains lead scientist Alexander Sinitskii. These graphene nanoribbons will now be tested in various electronics, solar cells and gas sensors. If these experiments prove successful, the nanoribbons produced at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could be used to revolutionize technology. 

The use of graphene as an effective method of water desalination had previously been proposed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but graduate student Sean O’Hern, along with Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, have devised a four-step method that could take it from theory to reality. Water desalination is a vital, but expensive method for many countries across Africa and the Middle East to produce drinking water. This new graphene membrane could help to create more efficient water filtration systems.   

Credit: O’Hern, S. C. ET AL. Nano Letters, Copyright 2014 American Chemical Society
Credit: O’Hern, S. C. ET AL. Nano Letters, Copyright 2014 American Chemical Society

The membrane that has been produced is a world first and consists of high density of subnanometer-scale pores in an atomically thin, single sheet of graphene. This enables a high rate of salt-rejection as well as a high flow of water, which makes it superior to conventional membranes. “To better understand how small and dense these graphene pores are, if our graphene membrane were to be magnified about a million times, the pores would be less than 1 millimeter in size, spaced about 4 millimeters apart, and span over 38 square miles, an area roughly half the size of Boston,” O’Hern says

Karnik believes that there are a number of commercial applications for their research, from desalination and nanofiltration, to the removal of unreacted reagents from DNA. He states that for biofiltration, the membrane at its current size could be used, though admits that scaling it up for use at a desalination plant would be challenging due to the large size required. The research received funding from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, a country that would greatly benefit from this technology and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The United States has a stellar reputation for producing ground-breaking scientific research and its universities rank as some of the best in the world. Technology transfer, where important knowledge and technologies are transferred to outside organisations, is essential to prevent vital innovations from languishing in the lab. In terms of graphene, strong links between industry and universities need to be established and maintained if the United States wants to achieve graphene dominance. 

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