Sidney graduate student Rob Weatherup reflects on plans for investment in graphene research.
At the Conservative party conference Chancellor George Osborne pledged £50m towards the development of new technologies based on graphene, the so-called 'miracle material' of the twenty-first century. The government hopes that the money will help turn pioneering UK research into an array of technologies that could secure jobs in research and development, and manufacturing.
Researchers at Cambridge University are at the forefront of the development of the industrial potential of graphene, including Sidney student Rob Weatherup who is currently completing a PhD in the Hofman Research Group at the Department of Engineering. The potential impact of graphene is enormous but there are a series of obstacles to be overcome, as Rob explains:
"Graphene is a single-atom thick sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in a hexagonal, honeycomb structure which has been shown to have quite astounding properties. It is very strong, transparent and highly conductive with electrons able to travel through it remarkably quickly. There are a whole host of applications that could take advantage of these properties, including ultrafast electronics, flexible roll-up touchscreens, and new lightweight composite materials. One of the biggest obstacles to realising these applications is finding an economical method for producing high-quality graphene over large areas (up to several m2).
My work focuses on growing such large-areas of graphene, which typically involves heating a metal foil in a Furnace and adding a carbon containing gas such as methane. The carbon in the gas arranges itself on surface of the metal which acts as a sort of atomic template, and if we’re careful, we can grow a graphene sheet the same size as the metal foil. The problem is that ideally we’d like to have the graphene on other materials such as glass and plastics where we can take advantage of its properties, and so at present we have to transfer the graphene using some tricky and time-consuming processes. We’re currently working on new ways to produce graphene directly on these materials, but this is no mean feat as non-metals tend to be much worse templates for producing graphene.
Another major obstacle is persuading large technology companies to start using this wonder material. The electronic industry has used silicon to make microchips for over 50 years, and spent a lot of money to get them working well, so they’re reluctant to completely change to using a new material even if it would make chips much faster. Therefore one of the major goals of our research is to try to integrate Graphene directly in to existing silicon microchips, as a complementary material which may help ease the transition to using graphene more widely in the future. We have in fact had some success in this area and we recently managed to lower the growth temperature for graphene to be compatible with existing silicon electronics.
Graphene certainly has a lot of promise, and it’s great to see the government taking research in this area seriously. With the political will to develop this technology, and interesting challenges to overcome, it’s a perfect time to be carrying out research in this exciting field."
This is an archived news story, first posted in 2011.
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