When an article talks about electrifying art, “electrifying” is not typically a verb. But an artist associated with a Rice University lab is really making artwork that can convey a jolt.
The Rice lab of chemist James Tour presented laser-induced graphene (LIG) in 2014 to the world, and currently, the scientists are creating art with the method, which involves changing carbon in a regular polymer or other material into microscopic flakes of graphene.
LIG is metallic and can conduct electricity. The interconnected flakes are effectively a wire that could reinforce electronic artworks.
The paper in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Nano Materials – merely titled “Graphene Art” – illustrates how the lab and Houston artist and co-author Joseph Cohen produced LIG portraits and prints, including a graphene-motivated landscape referred to as “Where Do I Stand?”
Although the work is not electrified, Cohen said it paves the foundation for future opportunities.
“That’s what I would like to do,” he said. “Not make it kitsch or play off the novelty, but to have it have some true functionality that allows greater awareness about the material and opens up the experience.”
Cohen developed the design in an illustration program and sent it straight to the industrial engraving laser Tour’s lab uses to produce LIG on a range of materials. The laser seared the artist’s fine lines into the substrate, in this case, archive-quality paper treated with fire retardant.
The piece, which was part of Cohen’s display at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative last year, looks into the depths of what a viewer reduced to nanoscale might see when looking at a field of LIG, with overlapping hexagons – the standard lattice of atom-thick graphene – vanishing into the distance.
“You’re looking at this image of a 3D foam matrix of laser-induced graphene and it’s actually made of LIG,” he said. “I didn’t base it on anything; I was just thinking about what it would look like. When I shared it with Jim, he said, ‘Wow, that’s what it would look like if you could really blow this up.'”
Cohen said his art relates to media specificity.
“In terms of the artistic application, you’re not looking at a representation of something, as traditionally we would in the history of art,” he said. “Each piece is 100% original. That’s the key.”
He formed an interest in nanomaterials as media for his art when he started work with Rice alumnus Daniel Heller, a bioengineer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York who set up an artist-in-residency position in his lab.
After two years of working with carbon nanotube-infused paint, Cohen participated in an Electrochemical Society conference and met Tour, who in turn introduced him to Rice chemists Bruce Weisman and Paul Cherukuri, who further enthused his study of nanotechnology.
The remaining is art history.
It would not be correct to think of the process as “printing,” Tour said. Rather than incorporating a substance to the treated paper, substance is seared away as the laser transforms the surface into foam-like flakes of interconnected graphene.
The art itself can be a lot more than eye candy, given LIG’s potential for electronic applications such as sensors or as triboelectric generators that convert mechanical actions into current.
“You could put LIG on your back and have it flash LEDs with every step you take,” Tour said.
The fact that graphene is a conductor — in contrast to ink, paint, or graphite from a pencil — makes it very appealing to Cohen, who hopes to exploit that capability in future research efforts.
“It’s art with a capital A that is trying to do the most that it can with advancements in science and technology,” he said. “If we look back historically, from the Renaissance to today, the highest forms of art push the limits of human understanding.”
Rice graduate student Yieu Chyan is the paper’s lead author. Co-authors are undergraduate Winston Wang and graduate student Chenhao Zhang. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.