Could a soapy kitchen blender point the way to a graphene breakthrough?

Osterizer - Dale Newsted

By Justin Bull

May 1, 2014

Graphene, a thin and strong advanced material, has taken another step towards commercial reality, the BBC reported. The breakthrough this time came after scientists enlisted a kitchen blender. They mixed graphite powder—the kind found in pencils—with water and dish soap. After a quick spin with precise volumes of each material, the graphite dissolved into two-dimensional graphene.

The researchers, based at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, are working with Thomas Swan—an advanced materials firm based in the United Kingdom—to scale up their research. The goal is to produce a kilogram of graphene daily by the end of the year.

Graphene—a sheet of carbon just one-atom thick, arranged in a honeycomb structure—holds huge promise. By weight it is 100 times stronger than steel, and it's a better electrical conductor than copper. Potential applications include water desalination, electronic circuitry and ultra-efficient solar panels.

Discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (who were later awarded the Nobel Prize for their work), graphene has enormous disruptive potential. But scientists have failed at producing large amounts cheaply and consistently. Traditional methods involve growing a sheet of graphene using a technique called “chemical vapor deposition," an approach that often results in defects that inhibit graphene’s unique properties.

The European team is not the only group working to produce graphene at scale. Samsung, the South Korean industrial giant, recently announced a new technique that purportedly produces graphene wafers that are defect-free and useful for producing electronic circuits. But despite the advancements, no new products or evidence of commercial-scale application have emerged.

Worldwide, the race to capitalize on graphene is on. Billions are invested every year by government and industry, despite almost zero revenue from the substance. Companies have gone public, and venture capitalists have created funds dedicated to the substance. Globally, more than 7,000 patents have been issued for graphene-related products or processes.

Clearly, the wonder material is a high-risk, high-reward opportunity. Progress on commercialization has been slow, but 2014 has already seen two key announcements on scaling up production. Those who succeed on bringing graphene to market will benefit hugely, disrupting a swathe of industries with a novel (if perhaps not entirely clean) technology.

Photo Credit: Dale Newsted