Engineers at MIT have successfully manufactured long strips of high-quality graphene, which, if scaled industrially, could potentially revolutionize the production of technology and health devices.
Graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon that forms a hexagonal shape. It is typically applied in batteries, polymers used in aerospace and wind energy technologies, sensors, in mechanical cardiovascular valves and cancer treatment, as well as in paints due to its anti-corrosive properties.
However, the production of graphene is costly, which is why it is manufactured in small batches only.
A breakthrough study published in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces demonstrated that graphene can be manufactured in large quantities as ultrathin membranes in a roll-to-roll approach.
In roll-to-roll or end-to-end approach, it starts with attaching two spools to a conveyor that runs through a hot furnace. Then, the researchers manufactured graphene through a process called chemical vapor deposition.
A sample of copper foil is then heated before a combination of carbon and other gases are added to it. Graphene is an impervious material that even the smallest of atoms like helium cannot penetrate.
"We know that for industrialization, it would need to be a continuous process," said John Hart, associate professor and the director of Laboratory for Manufacturing at MIT. "You would never be able to make enough by making just pieces. And membranes that are used commercially need to be fairly big - some so big that you would have to send a poster-wide sheet of foil into a furnace to make a membrane."
The team also was able to manufacture 10 meters of continuous graphene in under four hours at a rate of 5 centimeters per minute. The researchers also processed at different speeds with different ratios of methane and hydrogen gas to determine the quality of graphene.
Hart said that if graphene membranes would be produced commercially, it has to be in large quantities and of high quality.
"For now, we've demonstrated that this process can be scaled up, and we hope this increases confidence and interest in graphene-based membrane technologies and provides a pathway to commercialization," Hart said.
Uses Of Graphene
Experts believe that harnessing graphene could open up new possibilities and even replace old or existing technologies. Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK proposed that graphene could make nuclear energy greener and less costly.
The study published in Nature Communications reported that the graphene could reduce carbon dioxide emissions brought by heavy water production by up to a million tons annually.
"This is a crucial milestone in the path to taking this revolutionary technology to industrial application. The potential gains are high enough to justify its introduction even in the highly conservative nuclear industry," said Dr. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a research fellow at the University of Manchester.