In spite of all of graphene's wondrous properties, the new star of the materials science world has been largely useless so far. Producing quality graphene at commercial scales has remained tantalizingly out of reach — but a new method could help graphene-enabled technologies finally break into the market.
The technique, which researchers described in a paper published in the journal Science Advances, makes it possible to grow large sheets of this completely 2-dimensional honeycomb of carbon atoms at considerably lower costs. In their report, the researchers wrote that they see their work as "leading the way toward a scalable technology for high-quality graphene devices."
Among the myriad of applications that scientists have been excitedly exploring are water desalination devices, ultrasonic microphones and speakers, better solar cells, car batteries that charge in minutes, and smaller, faster chips. But the list of graphene-based products for commercial use is not nearly so long — because the affordable production of graphene at commercial scales is a major barrier.
The main way to produce quality graphene up to this point has been through a process called exfoliation. It's possible to create graphene this way using only the "lead" from a pencil – which is not really lead, but a material called graphite – and a piece of Scotch tape. This is actually how scientists first discovered graphene over a decade ago. The exfoliation method, however, can only produce small fragments of graphene at a time.
With this new method, it is possible to grow large sheets of graphene atop a copper surface by placing carbon-containing molecules of methane – the same molecule that has gained notoriety as a greenhouse gas – in a specialized furnace.
Previous versions of the this technique required a new piece of copper each time, making it prohibitively expensive for many commercial applications. In this new paper, the researchers report a way to reuse the copper, making it much more affordable.
Now, if they could only find a way to take the methane that's contributing to climate change and turn it into graphene, it would truly be a "wonder material."