Photo by Tour Group/Rice University
Graphene has been touted for its potential as a “wonder material” since its initial isolation in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two professors who then went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon with uses that span from energy to medical to electronics due to its unique properties. The material is conductive, lightweight, flexible, and 200 times stronger than steel, just to name a few of its wide array of beneficial characteristics.
It has been described as “silicon 2.0” for its potential as a conductor–although it also works as a barrier–because it is more efficient and more flexible.
One major issue with graphene, until now, is that it is expensive to produce. This has limited our ability to fully harness the material’s capabilities. Plus, since graphene is the thinnest material to ever be created at only one atom thick, generating quantities for large-scale, three-dimensional projects that could benefit from its strength has been practically impossible.
However, Tour Labs has been working hard to create what’s called “graphene foam,” and their newest iteration which they describe in their 2017 publication in ACS Nano may finally bring this material into use commercially in a highly-transformative way.
In their initial creation of graphene foam, the Rice University & Tianjin University teams used a 1,000-degree Celsius chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process which also required 3D molds and several hours–something not feasible for large-scale production in most industrial settings. Notably, in this initial experiment, the researchers also created “rebar graphene” which was graphene foam reinforced with carbon nantotubes.
But in their new method, the researchers use 3D printing to create a fingertip-sized piece of graphene foam at room temperature and with no pre-fabricated mold.
Photo Credit ACS Nano
The process of 3D printing uses two ingredients–powdered sugar and nickel powder–with a laser 3D printer.
As NewAtlas describes the process, “the laser beam strikes the mix, the sugar decomposes into carbon with the help of the nickel catalyst, before cooling into graphene.”
Using this laser sintering process with sugar and nickel allows scientists to alter the size of the pores in the foam by altering the ratios of the ingredients.
Tour Group/Rice University
In a quote by UPI on the benefits of 3D graphene from Rice graduate student Yilun Li, “The 3D graphene foams prepared by our method show promise for applications that require rapid prototyping and manufacturing of 3D carbon materials, including energy storage, damping and sound absorption.”
Soon, we may see a slew of new products harnessing the strongest, lightest material in the world thanks to this new method of creating graphene foam. It is safe to say that this process could make graphene foam the most disruptive material in manufacturing in the coming years.