Get Mo’ Graphene

A model of the intercalation of Brønsted acid molecules between single-atomic layers of graphene.  Credit: Mallouk Lab, Penn State University.

A model of the intercalation of Brønsted acid molecules between single-atomic layers of graphene. Credit: Mallouk Lab, Penn State University.

Want your own sample of science’s next wundermaterial? Have a pencil and some scotch tape at your side?

Graphene is a one-atom thick layer of carbon atoms that science has long denoted as the next super material. Besides its super strength, it has the ability to conduct heat and electricity better than any other known material. The applications are useless, with current endeavors underway to use graphene for flexible electronic displays, high-speed computing, stronger wind-turbine blades, and more-efficient solar cells.

And note that that’s not just theoretical uses. Those are actual products currently underway in the private industrial sector.

And they expect results.

Interestingly enough, all it really takes to make yourself some graphene is a lead pencil and some tape. Just roll the sharpened point of the pencil over the sticky side of the tape, and there you have it. The material left behind is basically graphene.

Of course, there are a huge number of molecular flaws and incongruences that make it completely unusable in the high tech world. It’s also no way to produce industrial amounts of the stuff for use in actual devices.

That’s where the scientists come in.

In a new paper from Penn State, Thomas Mallouk, the Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State, describes a potentially better way for graphene production. The trick is to take ions of another chemical and insert them between the carbon layers of graphite to bull the sheets apart.

The first time this was achieved was all the way back in 1841. Naturally, however, the method left much to be desired. Requiring a harsh oxidizing agent, the resulting graphene was about as usable as that layer on your scotch tape.

So Mallouk and Nina Kovtyukhova, a research associate in Mallouk’s lab, started playing around with a newer method developed in 1999. After trying the technique in several variations by leaving out single chemicals—much like that high school experiment where you leave single ingredients out of chocolate chip cookies—they discovered that the harsh oxidizing agent wasn’t necessary for the reaction to take place in materials similar to graphite.

Mallouk asked her to try a similar experiment without the oxidizing agent on graphite, but aware of the extensive literature saying that the oxidizing agent was required, Kovtyukhova balked.

“I kept asking her to try it and she kept saying no,” Mallouk said. “Finally, we made a bet, and to make it interesting I gave her odds. If the reaction didn’t work I would owe her $100, and if it did she would owe me $10. I have the ten dollar bill on my wall with a nice Post-it note from Nina complimenting my chemical intuition.”

Whether the discovery will actually be useful to industry or not remains to be seen. The process is still clumsy and slow. But it’s promising. The next step for Mallouk and colleagues will be to figure out how to speed the reaction up in order to scale up production.

Their results appear in the Nature Chemistry article titled “Non-oxidative intercalation and exfoliation of graphite by Brønsted acids,” by Nina I. Kovtyukhova, Yuanxi Wang, Ayse Berkdemir, Mauricio Terrones, Vincent H. Crespi, and Thomas E. Mallouk — all of Penn State — and Rodolfo Cruz-Silva of the Research Center for Exotic Nanocarbons, Shinshu University, Nagano, Japan.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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