BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Graphene is one tough cookie. Not only are scientists trying to find a way to turn this much-touted wonder substance into a new way to build orbital structure, but they are searching for more and more ways to try and manufacture this elusive substance – harder than diamond, stronger than steel, able to form tall buildings in a single bound. Under certain conditions, graphene can even become a durable superconductor, carrying electricity with no resistance. Graphene cells could make cellphone batteries last longer and some scientists even suggest it could help to filter hydrogen gas from out of the atmosphere to use as fuel.
But just like Superman, it’s hard to track down and it’s got a significant weakness. In the wild, graphene naturally accumulates into sheets that are only atoms wide, so there’s not nearly enough available for all the miraculous applications we could put it towards. Instead, scientists have turned to creating artificial graphene in the lab. This slow, time-consuming process requires intense heat, a perfect vacuum, and prohibitively expensive materials, and this has traditionally discredited graphene as a serious contender in the growing construction materials market.
All that changed in January 2017, when Australian scientists working out of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) reported a startling new breakthrough in the graphene creation process. Calling their new development GraphAir, this new process produces cheap graphene at room temperature from a common household object. Want some graphene of your own? Check your kitchen.
Cooking grease, peanut oil, and other greasy mixtures are a veritable soup of organic compounds, rife with carbon building blocks. Australia opted to use soybean oil for its early tests of the GraphAir process, making it less expensive and more efficient than the old process. After the soybean oil is heated in a tube furnace for thirty minutes, the heat breaks apart the molecules, creating a spicy cocktail of raw carbon molecules ripe for some re-forging. The resulting liquid is rapidly cooled on nickel foil, where it spreads and diffuses into a brand spankin’ new graphene sheet that’s just a little over a nanometre thick (for reference, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers). That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a darn sight better than the atoms-wide mixtures that we were previously using. Not only is this method faster and more productive, but it’s also entirely green – no need to worry about toxic runoff or smoggy emissions.
There’s still a long, long way to go before graphene can really take the world by storm. Even using the GraphAir method, manufacturers can only produce a credit card’s worth of graphene with every batch –not nearly enough to fulfill most of the demands that have been made. The potential is there, but at the moment scientists are looking for commercial partners to help expand their operations and keep the helm of the graphene ship steady. Whether or not we’ll be able to use graphene in our everyday lives remains to be seen, but in the meantime we can know that things are heating up in the race for graphene.