Strength that's only an atom deep

Updated: 2016-09-09 07:47

By Cecily Liu(China Daily Europe)

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A new material made up of a thin layer of pure carbon may give China profound opportunities, a leading British expert says

China can play a globally significant role in graphene development and commercialization through scientific research, coordinating international scientific exchanges, and production, says Robert Young, a renowned graphene scientist and a professor of polymer science and technology at the University of Manchester.

Young, who is leading a major graphene collaboration between the UK's National Graphene Institute and the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials, voiced support for the Chinese government's focus and push on developing graphene, adding that he is impressed by the good, fundamental knowledge of graphene already acquired by Chinese science organizations.

 Strength that's only an atom deep

Robert Young says China and the UK can cooperate greatly in graphene research. Provided to China Daily

Graphene is one of the most interesting inventions of modern times, and has the potential to transform the field of material science. A thin layer of pure carbon, it is tougher than a diamond, yet very lightweight, and easily conducts electricity and heat. It has been used for a wide variety of applications, from strengthening tennis rackets to building semiconductors.

Graphene was first isolated from the mineral graphite at the University of Manchester by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in 2004. The achievement earned them the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010. Owing to its short history, its commercial potential has yet to be unlocked.

Strength that's only an atom deep

"China's high-tech manufacturing industry, ability to invest heavily in the graphene sector and its abundance of highly qualified graphene industry talent all contribute to its advantages in the graphene industry," Young says.

He says China is going in the right direction in giving graphene an important role in its policies, such as in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), which sets out the country's development objectives.

China and the UK can cooperate greatly in graphene research in two key ways, Young says. "First, the exchange of talent is important. For example, in my team there are several Chinese PhD students doing graphene research, and I would expect they will in the future return to China and share their knowledge and expertise."

The other contribution China can make to the global graphene field is the hosting of academic and industrial conferences, to facilitate more discussions and exchange of ideas in the area, he says, adding that one example is the GraphChina conference in Qingdao in August, which facilitates graphene industry discussions.

Graphene has an important role to play for China, especially as it has been discovered at a time when China's electronics industry is also developing rapidly and will able to make the most of this material, Young says.

"Chinese industries are much more sophisticated compared with 20 years ago, and graphene can also greatly help China achieve its ambition of a structural shift toward high-end manufacturing," he says.

Currently, 70 percent of graphene's raw material, graphite, is found in China, giving Chinese graphene manufacturers a big advantage. To make the most of such an advantage, China has also established five graphene industrial parks to accelerate the industrialization of the material. The parks are located in Changzhou, Wuxi, Ningbo, Qingdao and Chongqing.

According to statistics from the UK's National Physical Laboratory, China has applied for 47 percent of the world's total graphene patents, and is currently the world's biggest applicant country.

The Beijing-based market intelligence firm ResearchInChina estimates that China's graphene market will grow to 200 million yuan ($30 million; 26.6 million euros) in 2018, compared with the current global market of $65 million. The global market in 2015 was worth $24.4 million.

Young completed his doctorate in materials science at the University of Cambridge 1972. Over the past few decades, he has worked with several groundbreaking materials including carbon nanotubes - cylindrical carbon molecules useful in nanotechnology and other fields - when they became popular 15 years ago. But he says graphene is the most interesting because it holds more potential.

Carbon nanotubes are atomically similar to graphene, but are harder to handle during processing, and do not have as wide and diverse a set of functions, so they do not appear to hold as much potential, he says.

"Graphene is an interesting material because it is thin, only one atom thick, but is very strong and stiff. It has multiple advantages, including the ability to conduct electricity well, to conduct heat well, and it is transparent.

"The interest in graphene is due to its multiple complex characteristics, as well as the attention it has attracted toward 2D materials, which were already discovered decades ago, but their potential can now be fully realized by combining them with graphene." Substances made up of a single layer of atoms are called 2D materials.

To fully unlock graphene's potential, commercialization is needed. The standardization of graphene production and securing production that is cost effective and of high quality are big challenges.

Young's team is working on the creation of a uniform standard for graphene. Standardization gives users of graphene reliable information on the chemical composition and structure of the material they receive.

"China can contribute a lot to this standardization process, because of China's abundant graphite deposits and its interest in pushing forward the standardization agenda. Once standards are created and adopted, ensuring consistency and cost efficiency shouldn't be too difficult, because the production of graphene is not a particularly expensive process," he says.

Young is leading two research collaborations with Chinese organizations. The first, in collaboration with the Beijing institute, examines how graphene could transform the transport sector by making aircraft and high-speed rail systems tougher and lighter. The research examines the effect of adding graphene to metals, including copper and aluminum, and to rubber and polymer resins. Aluminum is used mostly for the structural elements of aircraft, and adding graphene could make it tougher and stiffer.

Copper is used mostly for the electrical wires, and graphene could improve conductivity. Rubber components on an aircraft are mostly used for seals, such as around doors and windows. Polymer resins are used for adhesives, used to join components together, as in the case of composites. Adding graphene could make them more durable.

Young says this work mainly involves primary level research, and the Beijing institute would use the results for commercialization in China and globally.

In addition, Young is working with Hong Kong Polytechnic University on the applications of graphene in flexible electronics, such as its incorporation into clothing.

Despite graphene's numerous benefits, some scientists have questioned whether it will live up to its full potential, since attention could be drawn away by newer groundbreaking materials. That has been a pattern repeated with breakthroughs in recent decades. In the 1980s and '90s there was carbon 60, in the '90s and 2000s there was nanotubes, and now there's graphene.

But Young believes graphene will withstand the test of time. "Its electronic properties are unique. It is not only interesting in itself, but has also revived a huge interest in other 2D materials."

Such 2D materials have unusual characteristics that advance scientific development in applications such as photovoltaics, semiconductors, electrodes and water purification.

"Graphene's discovery also happened at a time when the world had developed the right analytical techniques to understand and reveal graphene's characteristics, and also a pool of applications, such as flexible electronics, opened up," he says.

(China Daily European Weekly 09/09/2016 page32)