In this Thought Leader interview, Dr Ania Servant, Knowledge Exchange Fellow for the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester, talks to AZoNano about the fundamental challenges standing in the way of Graphene commercialisation and how the new NGI facility is working with industry to solve these challenges.
Could your briefly provide an overview of the National Graphene Institute and the areas of Graphene research that are being conducted?
The National Graphene Institute (NGI) is a new sixty-one million pound building focusing on research and the commercialisation of Graphene. It is funded by the UK government, the European Commission and community funding. The building will open in March 2015 and is located in the South Campus, which was the old Victoria Manchester University building before merging.
The new building will house state of the art instruments and techniques to characterize graphene and to work with graphene and other 2D materials. The NGI will also collaborate on research projects with industry leaders. The building is specifically designed for industry to come and collaborate on academic research in order to push for the commercialization of Graphene.
It will allow industry to work hand in hand with academics, and gain access to the science and the expertise it has to offer. The university is also focusing on a variety on Graphene applications such as electronics, membranes and coatings, energy storage, composition structure, the standard characterization of graphene, and Bio-Medical application.
The NGI is already working with a lot of industry leaders and collaborating on a wide variety of projects with a lot more to come over the next few years.
What are the main factors currently standing in the way of graphene commercialisation?
The main problem we must overcome is up-scaling graphene production. The challenge lies in maintaining the quality in large quantities of graphene. If you have any defects on the graphene monolayer carbon network, it will dramatically affect the electrical conductivity, the transparency, the impermeability, the thermal conductivity and all the other great properties that are specific to graphene.
Currently there are two different methods for producing graphene. Bottom up and top down. Bottom up uses chemistry to assemble carbon atoms in order to create the monolayer structure. The main technique used in this process is chemical vapour deposition (CVD), which allows you to produce a monolayer of graphene directly onto a copper or nickel substrate.
If you want to place graphene on any arbitrary substrate you need to transfer it from the copper. This transfer technique can induce defects on the monolayers including holes, cracks and wrinkles that appear after this transfer. This causes a drop in the overall quality and therefore a reduction in the graphene properties. This is one of the major issues concerned with many different graphene based projects especially in the production of electronic device such as mobile phones.
Top down refers to the exfoliation of graphite into graphene. Graphite is millions of mono-layers of graphene stuck together. This method allows you to break all the stacked layers of graphite to produce graphene mono-layers. Top down essential means starting with a big element and finishing with a small element. This was first achieved using sticky type. The sticky type was used to exfoliate graphite until a single layer of graphene was obtained.
To date, exfoliation is still the best technique for producing a defect-less mono-layer of graphene. This technique is still used in academic research in order to create, evolve and study graphene. However, this method is not suitable for the large scale production runs.
Alternative methods have been developed to produce graphene via top down. Most notably the liquid phase exfoliation method, which was developed in Dublin by Professor Coleman. The graphene is obtained by putting graphite into a solvent which is then shock vigorously using sonication points. This results in graphite exfoliating spontaneously into the solvent. This method allows us to obtain graphene ink, graphene paint, graphene solution and if you evaporate the solvent- graphene powder.
As it stands, this technique only allows us to obtain grams of Graphene, which is not an efficient amount for use in industry projects or composite materials. For this reason, a lot of investment has been made into research in the UK and worldwide, to facilitate the high level production of Graphene.
Another technique to exfoliate graphite was also developed at the University of Manchester. The method is based on the electrochemical exfoliation of graphite using an electric current under specific conditions. This method of production has great potential in producing high quality graphene in the form of a powder solution or an ink. Morgan Advanced Materials has partnered with the university in developing an upscaling process for generating kilograms of graphene per day.
How is the knowledge exchange program helping companies and academics advance their research in areas such as advanced composites and energy storage?
As I mentioned before, there are two different techniques for producing Graphene, but there are many others techniques which can be used to research it. The different techniques used for producing Graphene lead to many different types of Graphene. They are not all equal and it depends on the application it is intended for. For example, Graphene produced for composite materials might not be suitable for electronic devices.
What we do in the knowledge exchange program is help companies to understand Graphene, the properties and what it can do. This is one problem we currently face across industry, and the knowledge exchange program is helping educate companies on what and how they can use Graphene. Once this is achieved, we can work with these companies to use the functionality of Graphene and apply it in many different applications. The knowledge exchange program is here to bridge the gap between academic research and industry, and to inform the industry about the capabilities and the possibilities of using Graphene.
Once we identify which type of Graphene would be suitable for the application in question, we work with the company to set up short term feasibility projects. This involves working with the company on a laboratory scale and helping them to establish the technology on the preface. This allows both parties to see if it's beneficial to carry on using Graphene, or to move in a different direction.
What impact do you think this will have on commercialising the material?
The NGI and the knowledge exchange program will have a huge impact, not only for graphene, but for the successful commercialisation of the material.
There is a huge amount of leading graphene research in UK, but it's often difficult to develop this further. The knowledge exchange program will play a major role in developing this research into a product, or a new technology.
The Knowledge exchange program is there to translate the academic science, and the academic research into innovation and new projects. The aim is to help companies in the UK and worldwide develop these projects at the NGI. I think this is an essential step to help bridge this gap, and to address any issues these industry leading companies are experiencing.
We need more research to discover the full capabilities of Graphene and how we can translate it into real life applications.
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the graphene road map, could you explain what this is and how it will help the materials progression?
The Graphene roadmap allows us to forecast, or try and predict the future of Graphene based projects. Up-scaling is still the main problem standing in the way of the successfully commercialisation of Graphene.
We have established a road-map, which is based on how the research will allow for a large upscale in production. For example, prior to CVD Graphene, the mechanical exfoliation could only achieve production runs on a micron scale piece of Graphene. However, using CVD Graphene we are able to produce kilometers of Graphene.
Achieving a high quality of graphene at these levels is still a challenge, but we are able to use these techniques to produce large scale quantities of CVD Graphene. There is a lot of research being conducted to improve the quality of the Graphene using this method, and in a few years we expect to see the first mobile phones incorporating a layer of Graphene.
We are already seeing Graphene being applied in products like tennis rackets for improved performance. We are also seeing a lot of research with Graphene in the field of composite materials. In five years’ time we expect to see Graphene composites being used for small components in the industries such as automotive and oil and gas.
We have high hopes for the future of Graphene and its applications. In ten years’ time we might even see Graphene being used in the production of aircrafts.
Ultimately the commercialisation of Graphene depends heavily on the ability to obtain a high quality during the up-scaling phase. We can now establish, with the research findings, a road-map which will allow us to predict and implement key factors to achieve the commercialisation of Graphene based products.
It was recently announced that researchers from the University of Manchester have found that graphene is impermeable to gases and liquids. What are your thoughts on how this will impact future research and the future applications?
A team at Manchester University conducted the research and found that Graphene can be impermeable to gas and liquid. They also found that its little brother Graphene oxide can also be impermeable to any gas, but not water.
This means that the Graphene membrane will stop everything except for water in a gas state and salt with a certain size in liquid state.
There are a huge amount of potential applications for this membrane including water purification and gas separation to remove all water humidity from a mixture of gas. This then has potential use in the bio-medical field to purify water, and proteins, and act like a molecular sieve.
There are also potential applications in the aerospace industry to remove water found in aeroplane fuel tanks.
This research specifically relates to Graphene oxide not Graphene, which is completely immovable to everything including water. Graphene has the potential use as a barrier material in packaging to protect your electronics, any conductors, or if you want to protect a metal from corrosion. This would involve coating the metal with Graphene to protect it against corrosion.
There are also potential applications in the food industry. Graphene based food packaging which will completely protect food items from the external environment.
Graphene: Made in Manchester
Video Courtesey of The University of Manchester – The home of graphene YouTube channel
Where can our readers learn more about the NGI?
They can visit our website here.
About Ania Servant
After completion of Master of Sciences (MSc.) from the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Chimie de Paris (Chimie Paris-Tech), followed by a Master of Research (MRes.) from Pierre et Marie Curie University (Paris VI), Ania was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to pursue a PhD training in Queen Mary University on the development of novel micro/nanoparticles for catalysis and biomimetic applications. After completion of her PhD in June 2010, Ania worked as a post-doctoral research associate for over two years in the Nanomedicine Lab at UCL School of Pharmacy, under the supervision of Prof. Kostas Kostarelos, functionalising carbon nanomaterials including graphene and carbon nanotubes for biomedical applications such as novel delivery vectors and diagnostic agents. In November 2012, she was awarded of a EPSRC Post-doctoral Fellowship to pursue her studies for another year in the Nanomedicine lab on the development of injectable graphene hydrogel hybrids for on-demand drug delivery.
From December 2013, Ania works as Knowledge Exchange fellow for the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester. Her role aims at generating opportunities for knowledge exchange between the NGI and industrial/commercial partners and participating in the development of a sustainable, long term knowledge exchange capability within this institute. As such, Dr. Servant will be involved in conducting a number of short term applied projects in partnership with a diverse range of industrial partners looking to investigate the use of graphene and its derivatives in a range of applications. In addition, she will be involved in co-ordinating larger scale externally funded knowledge exchange application projects and in contributing to these projects in collaboration with colleagues from the School of Materials, Physics, Computer Science, Bio and Life Sciences, and other university departments.
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