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Making graphene cost-effective and scalable

Posted: 25 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MIT? University of Michigan? graphene? manufacturing? chemical vapour deposition?

Graphene holds immense promise in various applications including flexible light sources, solar panels that could be integrated into windows, and membranes to desalinate and purify water, producing graphene simply is very expensive. Now, wouldn't it be amazing to have a scalable and cost-effective method for continuous manufacturing of graphene films?

That could finally change with a new process described in the journal Scientific Reports by researchers at MIT and the University of Michigan. MIT mechanical engineering associate professor A. John Hart, the paper's senior author, said the innovative roll-to-roll manufacturing process described by his team addresses the fact that for many proposed applications of graphene and other 2D materials to be practical, "you're going to need to make acres of it, repeatedly and in a cost-effective manner."

Roll-to-roll graphene manufacturing process

Copper substrate is shown in the process of being coated with graphene. At left, the process begins by treating the copper surface, and, at right, the graphene layer is beginning to form. Upper images are taken using visible light microscopy, and lower images using a scanning electron microscope. (Courtesy of the researchers)

Making such quantities of graphene would represent a big leap from present approaches, where researchers struggle to produce small quantities of graphene, often pulling these sheets from a lump of graphite using adhesive tape, or producing a film the size of a postage stamp using a laboratory furnace. But the new method promises to enable continuous production, using a thin metal foil as a substrate, in an industrial process where the material would be deposited onto the foil as it smoothly moves from one spool to another. The resulting sheets would be limited in size only by the width of the rolls of foil and the size of the chamber where the deposition would take place.

Because a continuous process eliminates the need to stop and start to load and unload materials from a fixed vacuum chamber, as in today's processing methods, it could lead to significant scale-up of production. That could finally unleash applications for graphene, which has unique electronic and optical properties and is one of the strongest materials known.

The process is an adaptation of a chemical vapour deposition method already used at MIT and elsewhere to make graphene, using a small vacuum chamber into which a vapour containing carbon reacts on a horizontal substrate, such as a copper foil. The novel system uses a similar vapour chemistry, but the chamber is in the form of two concentric tubes, one inside the other, and the substrate is a thin ribbon of copper that slides smoothly over the inner tube.

Gases flow into the tubes and are released through precisely placed holes, allowing for the substrate to be exposed to two mixtures of gases sequentially. The first region is called an annealing region, used to prepare the surface of the substrate; the second region is the growth zone, where the graphene is formed on the ribbon. The chamber is heated to about 1,000C to perform the reaction.

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