Graphene: wonder material of the 21st century


Graphene. First described and named in 1962 it took more than 40 years before it was rediscovered, isolated and characterised in 2004; but when will it be useable in the myriad applications that have generated enormous interest since?

Graphene: wonder material of the 21st century

Graphene is emerging as a hugely promising material in a wide variety of applications because of its combination of extreme properties; however, before we can exploit these we need Graphene in forms that overcome numerous practical problems. If Graphene is to be put to good use in applications, we need to be able to use various combinations of its properties and to be able to exploit these simultaneously.

One of the greatest challenges to be overcome before Graphene can move from a research curiosity to applications is manufacturing at scale. Along with the manufacturing capabilities and capacity is the need for Graphene metrology (‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t make it’) and standards and development of appropriate regulations to manufacture high quality material, on a large scale at low cost, sustainably and in a reproducible manner. Graphene also needs to be manufactured at a quality fit for application: defects, impurities, grain boundaries, multiple domains, structural disorders, wrinkles and so on in the Graphene can considerably affect its properties from mechanical through to optical and electronic. 

For use in electronic and electrical applications the requirement of large areas of uniformly very high quality Graphene are required, which is currently possible only when Chemical Vapour Deposition processes are used. Chemical Vapour Deposition is usually referred to as ‘CVD’ and is a chemical process used to produce high quality, high-performance, solid materials. The process is often used in the semiconductor industry to produce thin films. In typical CVD, a substrate - in the case for Graphene production Copper is usually used - is exposed to carbon-containing volatile precursors such as Methane, which decomposes on the substrate surface to produce a Graphene layer. It is difficult to produce high quality, single crystalline Graphene thin films with very high electrical and thermal conductivities and excellent optical transparency as large-area wafers for integration with current microelectronic fabrication technology.
Modifying the properties of Graphene for use in electronics remains a significant challenge; for example, it is highly conducting and it lacks a band-gap, such that it can’t be used in electronics components, though recent research has made considerable advances towards addressing this problem.

Ensuring consistent mechanical, thermal and physical properties is also a major challenge at this point in Graphene’s development; these essential characteristics are required if materials formulations that include bulk Graphene are to be consistent in form and behaviour.

Perhaps a key issue (that applies to the manufacturing-at-scale of many materials) is that the synthesis and manufacture of Graphene by current and conventional techniques uses large quantities of toxic chemicals and usually produces hazardous waste, poisonous gases and environmentally-unfriendly materials.

If Graphene is to be adopted for use in the many applications where it shows it could become a game-changer, there is a need to develop environmentally-friendly manufacturing technologies using automated methods to enable low production costs. This report includes an overview of Graphene developments with examples of applications areas, their potential and investability, with forecasts for their adoption against technology development in a 2, 5 and 10-year timeframe. 

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