Don’t try this at home. No really, don’t: it almost certainly won’t work and you won’t be able to use your kitchen blender for food afterwards. But buried in the supplementary information of a research paper published today is a domestic recipe for producing large quantities of clean flakes of graphene.
The carbon sheets are the world’s thinnest, strongest material; electrically conductive and flexible; and tipped to transform everything from touchscreen displays to water treatment. Many researchers — including Jonathan Coleman at Trinity College Dublin — have been chasing ways to make large amounts of good-quality graphene flakes.
In Nature Materials, a team led by Coleman (and funded by the UK-based firm Thomas Swan) describe how they took a high-power (400-watt) kitchen blender and added half a litre of water, 10–25 millilitres of detergent and 20–50 grams of graphite powder (found in pencil leads). They turned the machine on for 10–30 minutes. The result, the team reports: a large number of micrometre-sized flakes of graphene, suspended in the water.
Coleman adds, hastily, that the recipe involves a delicate balance of surfactant and graphite, which he has not yet disclosed (this barrier dissuaded me from trying it out; he is preparing a detailed kitchen recipe for later publication). And in his laboratory, centrifuges, electron microscopes and spectrometers were also used to separate out the graphene and test the outcome. In fact, the kitchen-blender recipe was added late in the study as a bit of a gimmick — the main work was done first with an industrial blender (pictured).
Still, he says, the example shows just how simple his new method is for making graphene in industrial quantities. Thomas Swan has scaled the (patented) process up into a pilot plant and, says commercial director Andy Goodwin, hopes to be making a kilogram of graphene a day by the end of this year, sold as a dried powder and as a liquid dispersion from which it may be sprayed onto other materials.
“It is a significant step forward towards cheap and scalable mass production,” says Andrea Ferrari, an expert on graphene at the University of Cambridge, UK. “The material is of a quality close to the best in the literature, but with production rates apparently hundreds of times higher.”
The quality of the flakes is not as high as that of the ones the winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov from Manchester University, famously isolated using Scotch Tape to peel off single sheets from graphite. Nor are they as large as the metre-scale graphene sheets that firms today grow atom by atom from a vapour. But outside of high-end electronics applications, smaller flakes suffice — the real question is how to make lots of them.
Although hundreds of tons of graphene are already being produced each year — and you can easily buy some online — their quality is variable. Many of the flakes in store are full of defects or smothered with chemicals, affecting their conductivity and other properties, and are tens or hundreds of layers thick. “Most of the companies are selling stuff that I wouldn’t even call graphene,” says Coleman.
The blender technique produces small flakes some four or five layers thick on average, but apparently without defects — meaning high electrical conductivity. Coleman thinks the blender induces shear forces in the liquid sufficient to prise off sheets of carbon atoms from the graphite chunks (“as if sliding cards from a deck”, he explains).
Kitchen blenders aren’t the only way to produce reasonably high-quality flakes of graphene. Ferrari still thinks that using ultrasound to rip graphite apart could give better materials in some cases. And Xinliang Feng, from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, says that his recent publication, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, reports a way to produce higher-quality, fewer-layer graphene at higher rates by electrochemical means. (Coleman points out that Thomas Swan have taken the technique far beyond what is reported in the paper.)
As for applications, “the graphene market isn’t one size fits all”, says Coleman, but the researchers report testing it as the electrode materials in solar cells and batteries. He suggests that the flakes could also be added as a filler into plastic drinks bottles — where their added strength reduces the amount of plastic needed, and their ability to block the passage of gas molecules such as oxygen and carbon dioxide maintains the drink’s shelf life.
In another application altogether, a small amount added to rubber produces a band whose conductivity changes as it stretches — in other words, a sensitive strain sensor. Thomas Swan’s commercial manager, Andy Goodwin, mentions flexible, low-cost electronic displays; graphene flakes have also been suggested for use in desalination plants and even condoms.
In each case, it has yet to be proven that the carbon flakes really outperform other options — but the new discoveries for mass-scale production mean that we should soon find out. At the moment, an array of firms is competing for different market niches, but Coleman predicts a thinning-out as a few production techniques dominate. “There are many companies making and selling graphene now: there will be many fewer in five years’ time,” he says.