This week’s guest blog is by Dr Siân Fogden, who is is a Nanotechnologist. Here, she tells us about her favourite fascinating molecule, Graphene.
My Molecule: Graphene
Is there anything that graphene can’t do? By being stronger than steel, the world’s best conductor of heat and electricity, totally flexible and see through and so light that you can’t feel it, it has truly earned its reputation as a wonder material! A wonder material that could lead to mobile phones that you could roll up and put in your pocket (with screens that don’t break); invisibility cloaks; clothes that could generate electricity as your wear them; transfer tattoos that could sense your breathing, heart rate, or blood sugar; or even an elevator into space!
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice – it essentially looks like a flat sheet of chicken wire only extremely tiny! So tiny in fact it is one hundred thousand times smaller than a human hair. That is seriously small.
I have been working with graphene and the other molecules in its family (such as carbon nanotubes – which are just like graphene only rolled up into a tube) for the best part of 15 years. I love the fact that these molecules have only started to be studied so recently – the first experiments on graphene were only completed in 2004, while I was working on their nanotube cousins! So every time you work on them or whenever you think of an experiment to do – it will be the first time that that experiment has been done!
In fact, those first experiments performed in 2004 won the scientists (who happened to be from Manchester University) a
Nobel prize (which is like the Oscars for science). The really incredible thing, though, is not that these scientists won a Nobel prize but their method for making graphene. They used stick tape! STICKY TAPE!!!!! They took a block of graphite (just like graphite you find in a HB pencil) and stuck some sticky tape to it, peeled it off, stuck some more tape to that, peeled it off and kept doing that until they only had one layer of graphite left – this single layer is called graphene!! How often do you hear of a Nobel prize-winning experiment that you can replicate at home?!
Since these first experiments on graphene, scientists from all over the world have been attempting to harness its unique properties. Obviously producing graphene by sticking it to tape is cool but not ultimately useful! It has been found, however, that graphene can be quite easy to make and dissolved into water – just add special soap to water and graphite flakes and blend in a normal kitchen blender and voila – graphene ready to use! High quality graphene can also be ‘grown’ as large flat sheets onto a sheet of copper. This opens up the opportunity to take advantage of another amazing graphene property: its ability to not let any other molecules pass though it. In other words, it acts as a complete barrier. As a barrier graphene could be used in simple things like packaging for food to keep it super fresh through to very complicated things like high quality displays.
The potential uses for graphene are really only limited by your own imagination – I truly believe that it will revolutionise the world around us!
Dr Siân Fogden (@DrSianF) is a Nanotechnologist with an Oxford University chemistry degree and an Imperial College London PhD. She spent five years in southern California working as the Market and Technology Development Manager for Linde Nanomaterials, which was created to commercialise the technology developed and patented during her PhD. In 2015 Dr Fogden brought her technology back to London and created Anionica to continue this commercialization path. Her technology focuses on the reductive dissolution of carbon nanotubes, producing inks to make transparent conductive films. Such films can be used in flexible displays, touch screens, smart windows and solar cells.
Is there a molecule that truly fascinates you? You can enter our competition now and tells us about your favourite molecule to be in with a chance of winning a Nano Simbox VR workshop for your school! Join in on twitter too with #MyMolecule.