Blenders can be a great way to make smoothies or margaritas, but did you know they can also used for science?
Researchers have figured out how to use ordinary kitchen blenders to create thin sheets of graphene, a marvelous high-tech material that is just one atom thick but 100 times stronger than steel. Graphene is also an incredibly efficient conductor of heat and electricity. All of these qualities make it valuable for use in electronics and a variety of other applications, but so far production of high-quality graphene has been limited to fairly small batches.
This new discovery, published this week in the journal Nature Materials, could change that. A team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and other institutions have figured out that they can take graphite powder (the same stuff found in pencil leads), water and dishwashing detergent, mix them up in a blender at high speed, and come up with graphene sheets. Not only that, they did it at higher quantities and better qualities than most existing methods.
The researchers did most of their work in a five-liter industrial blender, but they also replicated it in a fairly low-end kitchen blender. The process still worked in the cheaper, less precise device. "This clearly shows that even very crude mixers can produce well exfoliated graphene," the authors wrote in their paper.
This doesn't mean that your average person could start mixing up graphene in their kitchen — the liquid and detergent need to be removed and remaining graphite flakes must be extracted without damaging the graphene sheet — but an engineer certainly could. One person who was not affiliated with the study told the Los Angeles Times that the paper is "a hands-on guide for chemical and materials engineers practitioners to make assessments of cost and efficacy."
As to the importance of this discovery, the paper starts off with this statement: "To progress from the laboratory to commercial applications, it will be necessary to develop industrially scalable methods to produce large quantities of defect-free graphene." Those applications could include better solar cells, "smart" coatings, new kinds of computers and all kinds of other devices or components. The authors expand on this, writing that "In the next decade, graphene will find commercial applications in many areas from high-frequency electronics to smart coatings. Some important classes of applications, such as printed electronics, conductive coatings and composite fillers, will require industrial-scale production of defect-free graphene in a process-able form."
The process has been patented and the researchers say they already have plans to scale the process up to industrial scales. They tell Nature they hope to be producing a kilogram of graphene a day by the end of the year.
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