Graphene is the world’s lightest and strongest material and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado has just realized that it is going to change the world as we know it.
Researchers at the Institute have recently devised a method of generating the extremely thin material on copper film. As rare-earth-metals become more and more expensive and scarce, graphene might provide the solution to a myriad of technologies.
Some uses of graphene range from the inclusion in electronics, sensors, and solar cells to increasing speeds of the Internet, and medical technologies. The reason the thin material is just making an appearance now, is due to it being too difficult to produce in the thin layers required. That is, until the NIST researchers made their huge discovery.
To create the extremely thin layer of graphene, the NIST team used a two-step process. First, copper is deposited on sapphire wafers which are at room temperature. Then it is annealed at the melting temperature of the copper. The process of annealing consists of a heat treatment that alters the material to make it more ductile and workable. The annealing process is most common in material sciences in metallurgy. By using this two-step process, the NIST team was successful in growing graphene grains on the copper substrate that were only 0.2 millimeters in size.
NIST researcher, Mark Keller, stated that in the past the problems they encountered were most of the films had the inability to survive the stage of graphene growth needed to produce wafer-scale graphene devices.
The most promising use for the graphene production is for using it in new electronic circuits and optical devices. Both uses would require very thin profiles and NIST’s latest discovery is likely going to change the world of electronics and optics in the near future.
The amazing potential of graphene has been know for a while, but its production in the thin profile was thought to be impossible. Graphene is the strongest material known to date and coupled with its properties of being a great conductor of electricity will make it more than perfect for use in electronics and electronic device production.
Graphene has the potential of being grown to a mere thickness of only one atom. To say the substance is space-age is not telling a lie, as future astronauts will be able to explore space in much thinner and stronger graphene space suits.
The amazing properties of graphene don’t just stop there. Graphene is nontoxic, inexpensive and completely transparent. When combined with its ability to conduct electricity, these features would make it perfect for use in the future production of solar cells. The graphene would allow light to shine through it, while still being able to conduct the electronic flow required for solar cells to operate more efficiently.
What aided the NIST discovery was the copper substrate itself. Previously scientists had challenges in making graphene due to the high heat that was needed while other substrates would fail before the graphene would grow. The copper used in the NIST study contains crystalline grains that are massive in comparison to any microelectronic standards. The bulk of the crystalline grains were big enough to survive the high temperatures required for the graphene to grow. The ideal film thickness of graphene is less than one micrometer and the crystalline copper grains are about 10,000 times larger.
This graphene growth process at NIST may just be one of the most important discoveries to advance the technology world. Many materials that high-tech manufacturers are accustomed to are now going to change.
By Brent Matsalla