Graphene: How to make the miracle material – using a kitchen blender

New discovery promises cheap mass production of graphene - a miracle material that many think will revolutionise many modern industries
  • @jjvincent

Graphene’s reputation as a miracle material is well established, but scientists may just have added another attribute to the carbon-derivative’s Top Trumps card: you can make it using a kitchen blender.

The discovery comes from a team of scientists at Trinity College in Dublin who wanted to industrialise the process that had originally led to graphene’s discovery.

First manufactured by a pair of chemists from Manchester University, the single atom-thick layers of carbon were famously isolated using the lo-fi method of peeling off sheets of the stuff from powdered graphite (the material found in pencil tips) with sellotape.

To this end the team from Dublin sought to speed up this shearing process by mixing together graphite powder, washing-up liquid and water, and then blitzing it in a high-power blender for up to half an hour at a time. The resulting black goop contained large micrometre-sized flakes of graphene suspended in the water.

Now, before you make a grab for the pencils and Fairy Liquid the team of Trinity College scientists, led by Jonathan Coleman, stressed that determining exactly the right balance of detergent and graphene requires the use of a lab-grade spectrometer and that subsequently separating out the material from the solution is even more difficult.

The end product is not as high quality as that produced by the labs that grow the material from vapour atom by atom, but the process (already patented) could still be fantastically useful, with the resultant graphene flakes suited for an array of applications in everything from manufacturing faster electronics to water bottles that use less plastic and have a longer shelf life.

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“It is a significant step forward towards cheap and scalable mass production,” Andrea Ferrari, an expert on graphene at the University of Cambridge, told Nature. “The material is of a quality close to the best in the literature, but with production rates apparently hundreds of times higher.”

Currently the market for manufacturing graphene is booming as investors throw money at various companies. However, a lot of the material produced is of low quality, with defects in the atomic structure or chemical contaminants reducing the material’s efficacy.

Early studies suggest that Coleman’s process could be scaled up from the kitchen blender to an industrial, 10,000 litre vat that could produce as much as 100 grams of graphene per hour. Given that current rates of production do not generally exceed 0.4 grams per hour this would be a significant step forward.

“If you were to try this at home, you could use a household surfactant (dishwashing liquid)," explains Coleman in a paper published online in the journal Natural Materials. "However, I'm not sure I'd want to make a smoothie in a blender that has just been filled with graphite."