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Graphene earning nickname of 'miracle material'

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Alexander Star, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh is working with graphene and single-wall carbon nanotubes.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Alexander Star, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh is working with graphene and single-wall carbon nanotubes. Star is pictured in an Eberly Hall laboratory on the University campus.
Image of a silicon chip with graphene nanosensors compared to a penny.

The race is on to perfect a miracle.

Governments, companies and universities around the world are dumping billions of dollars into research on graphene, carbon sheets one atom thick, discovered a few years ago.

The first group to figure out how to cheaply and reliably produce large quantities of the “miracle material” could take a leading role in a range of industries it might soon transform — among them consumer electronics, cars, medical devices and energy production and storage.

Graphene's properties until recently were the stuff of science fiction. The strongest material tested, it is the thinnest ever made. It conducts heat and electricity far better than copper and silicon, and it's so impermeable that helium, whose atoms are small enough to leak through the walls of steel tanks, can't penetrate it.

It's as flexible as rubber and as clear as lightly tinted glass.

“It is a perfect material,” said Alexander Star, a chemistry professor who leads a nanoparticle research group at the University of Pittsburgh.

Flexible electronic displays likely will be among the first commercially available products the material transforms. If tough, bendable graphene replaces brittle, costly indium tin oxide — a precious metal key to making touch screens work — electronics makers could produce flexible cellphones and tablets that wouldn't shatter if dropped.

Yet, graphene's properties allow for far more than a slimmer phone.

Thin layers, long reach

Star's group made a sensor about the size of Lincoln's jaw on a penny, with four squares infused with microscopic rolls of graphene — known as single-layer nanotubes — attached to electrodes. The carbon is so thin, it's sensitive enough to pick up the acetone made by a diabetic's body, for example.

Imagine a similar sensor with 100 squares on it, each calibrated to pick up something different, Star said. The problem isn't fitting it on the chip, he said — it's figuring out “what 100 things do we want to detect in a person's breath.”

One exhale from a patient, he said, would let doctors run tests instantly and cheaply without drawing a drop of blood.

A poster near his office shows a rendering of one of his chips plugged into an iPhone port, hinting at a possible future of routine, remote medical diagnoses.

“It has such a wide range of applications,” said James Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice University, a leading institution for nanotechnology research.

Tour led a research group that made compressed natural gas storage tanks using graphene and plastic, lighter and less permeable than metal tanks, which could make natural gas-fueled vehicles more practical.

The same technology could extend the shelf life of beer and soda.

Researchers in California used the material to make a super capacitor — like a battery but lighter, smaller and without acid — so a person could charge a cellphone in five seconds. If it powered an electric car, charging could take as little as 15 minutes, the researchers estimate, making electric car charging about as time consuming as topping off a gas tank.

Cars could drop up to two-thirds of their weight, thanks to graphene. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Mohammad Islam led a group that made tiny graphene scaffolding around which they poured melted polymer. It might eventually be possible, Islam said, to make a material as light as plastic, as strong as aluminum and made into pieces big enough to build a car.

Rapid progress

Star began working with nanoparticles in 2000, four years before graphene's discovery. On his first day as a researcher, he wrote to a Rice University scientist who was one of the only people in the world making carbon nanotubes.

Star asked for a milligram of the material — an amount too small for the naked eye to see — for research.

He chuckles at the memory as he points out a blue plastic tub about the size of his head containing a kilogram of nanotubes — 1 million times as much as that first miniscule request. Bayer Corp. dropped it off one day, unsolicited.

“They just gave it to us as a present,” he said, smiling.

Such is the speed of “miracle” materials.

Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov made the first sheet of graphene in 2004 while working at the University of Manchester in Great Britain. Shrugging off high-tech solutions, the pair used Scotch tape to peel layer after layer off graphite — the stuff that makes pencil lead — until an atom-thick sheet was left.

Six years later, their discovery won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an award usually given for discoveries that take decades to achieve prominence. The award this year, for example, honors two scientists for a discovery in the early 1960s.

Cost of progress

The field's rapid progress has a cost. Since 2001, the government has spent about $18 billion on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which doled out most of the money in academic research grants. The money pays for a broad range of research; graphene is just one promising part.

Rather than a coordinated, national graphene research program like the European Union's, domestic agencies including the National Science Foundation and departments of Defense and Energy fund individual research projects. The science foundation spent about $622 million since 2006 on projects connected to graphene, according to a federal database.

The EU is concentrating squarely on graphene. In January, it awarded a 1 billion euro grant — equal to about $1.4 billion — to a project involving 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates, spread across 100 research groups.

“They're focusing very heavily on graphene. I wish we had the money to do that type of thing here in the U.S.,” Tour said. “I'm not sure we even have that kind of money anymore.”

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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