The future of graphene

10 August 2015

Interview with

Karl Coleman, University of Durham

Graphene has only been around as a material for 10 years, which is a pretty short timegraphene_screen in terms of new materials and getting them from the lab into commercial applications. What does the future hold? Karl Coleman is a Professor of Chemistry at Durham University, and chief scientific director at Applied Graphene Materials, a company which manufactures graphene and advises its customers on how to incorporate it into their products. Karl explained to Kat Arney just what all these amazing properties are actually going to do for us...

Karl - Yeah. So, we heard some great applications and potential applications from both James and Andrea. In the future, I guess what we're looking at, we're looking from a commercial perspective. We're really after what we call early wins, some people like to call them low hanging fruit. But I prefer the early wins, a more positive approach.

Kat - So, is this just sticking graphene into current products to make them better?

Karl - It's slightly more sophisticated, but yes. So, what we would call sort of drop-in technology where you'd actually take a current process or a product where you'd just really improve those properties, enhance the properties of that material. So, we're talking there really of things like paints or coatings, oils and lubricants that we heard mentioned earlier, composite materials, or even in energy storage - so, super capacitors or batteries. So, really actually using graphene in a more drop-in technology sense but making use of more than one of those properties that graphene has. We heard a lot about the exceptional properties that graphene has, but really what we want to do in the commercial sense is to make use of perhaps more than one of them and then you can get that cost-performance benefit.

Kat - I love the idea of using graphene, maybe I can have my graphene tracksuit and my hoverboard. Are there going to be more fun applications of graphene that people are starting to explore? 

Karl - Yes. There are. I mean, just last week there was an article in Nature. So, that was a graphene kirigami. So, kirigami's just a form of origami but with cutting. So, they were able to fabricate springs, hinges, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. And if you put an iron pad on the graphene spring, you can actually move it in a magnetic field. So, you can stretch it in a magnetic field. So, you can see how these could be used in stretchable electrodes or wearable electronics, wearable devices. There are lots of fun things around the corner.

Kat - And are there any things that you think that graphene actually won't be the right thing for? We do hear so much about it. It seems there's an incredible amount of hype around this material as well. Is there anything that it probably won't turn out to be good for?

Karl - Oh! That's a tricky question. We like to focus on the positives, so the things they will be good for. It's hard to say. There are lots of potential applications for graphene out there but there's also lots of competition. Some of the technologies that we're talking about, mainly in electronics, there's competitive materials. So, it's going to be tougher for graphene to really make a step change perhaps in some of those applications. So, we are really hung up on silicon. We like silicon, the advancement in silicon is phenomenal. So, will you really see it in chips? Maybe on its own - no, I don't think so. But perhaps as a hybrid. So you could see it incorporated with silicon to deliver something that you can't do with silicon. So, there's the combination. So, replacing silicon - say no. But used in conjunction with silicon, then yes.

Kat - Another area that people are very interested in with sort of the nanomaterials is in potentially in medicine in drug delivery. We heard about the possible use in surgical lasers. But what do we know about its safety in the human body, if people do start making nano devices out of graphene that could go inside us?

Karl - Yes. If you're talking implants, and of course the toxicology and toxicity of graphene does come into play, or potential toxicity. So, there are lots of efforts out there in the scientific arena where people are looking at the potential toxic, or to see if graphene actually has any toxic effects. So, that's still an area that's very open, and an area that people are researching very intensively. There's no evidence at the moment to perhaps suggest that it's going to be any different to any other carbons that are perhaps out there that people are using. So, it's really watch this space I guess for what people come up with in that area.

Kat - So, I'm not going to ask you to throw your crystal ball too far into the future, you know, the graphene spaceship heading to Pluto, but maybe in the next five years what do you see as being the key applications that will really start to come to fruition?

Karl - So, the applications we're likely to see. So, we've seen the earlier adopters - so sporting goods. Graphene's already out there in tennis rackets, bicycle wheels and bicycle components, so we're in the next phase. And so I think we're likely to see it in coatings, oils, and lubricants. Composites, perhaps a little way down the track. But the big one to watch out for, perhaps, is super capacitors. That has an enormous amount of potential.

Kat - What's a super capacitor? I'm a biologist.

Karl - It's another way of storing energy. So, it's a bit like a battery but you store it through ions rather than electrochemical work. So, you separate the ions in a device, you can charge them up in seconds. A battery takes hours to charge up, where as a capacitor you can charge up in seconds. But that's the simple differentiate between the two.

Kat - Over the past half an hour we've heard of some really incredible and exciting applications but what do you think are the hurdles that need to be overcome? We've heard a bit about how we can make it on a more industrial scale. What are the really big challenges to get graphene into the prime time?

Karl - We're making headway in graphene synthesis, that's going well. There's still more things to solve in terms of the synthesis and isolation purity of the material. But really, if you're looking at some of these applications in that you have to get it into something. So, graphene dispersing in a variety matrices is going to be very, very important. And that can be tricky. So, it's very important to work with people, companies or technologies that really know their products or process, and then help and work with them to get graphene to disperse into their products or media. And then really to deliver the benefits of graphene that we're all talking about.

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