Researchers developed a promising graphene–carbon nanotube catalyst, giving them better control over hugely important chemical reactions for producing hydrogen fuel
Fuel cells and water electrolyzers that are cheap and efficient will form the cornerstone of a hydrogen fuel based economy, which is one of the most promising clean and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. These devices rely on materials called electrocatalysts to work, so the development of efficient and low-cost catalysts is essential to make hydrogen fuel a viable alternative. Researchers at Aalto university have developed a new catalyst material to improve these technologies.
The oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) and oxygen evolution reaction (OER) are the most important electrochemical reactions that limit the efficiencies of hydrogen fuel cells (for powering vehicles and power generation), water electrolyzers (for clean hydrogen production), and high-capacity metal-air batteries. Physicists and chemists at Aalto collaborating with researchers at CNRS France, and Vienna in Austria have developed a new catalyst that drive these reactions more efficiently than other bifunctional catalysts currently available. The researchers also found that the electrocatalytic activity of their new catalyst can be significantly altered depending on choice of the material on which the catalyst was deposited.
“We want to replace traditional expesive and scarce catalysts based on precious metals like platinum and iridium with highly active and stable alternatives composed of cheap and earth-abundant elements such as transition metals, carbon and nitrogen.” says Dr Mohammad Tavakkoli, the researcher at Aalto who led the work and wrote the paper.
In collaboration with CNRS the team produced a highly porous graphene–carbon nanotube hybrid and doped it with single atoms of other elements known to make good catalysts. Graphene and carbon nanotube (CNT) are the one‐atom‐thick two- and one‐dimensional allotropes of carbon, respectively, which have attracted tremendous interest in both academia and industry due to their outstanding properties compared more traditional materials. They developed an easy and scalable method to grow these nanomaterials at the same time, combining their properties in a single product. “We are one of the leading teams in the world for the scalable synthesis of double-walled carbon nanotubes. The innovation here was to modify our fabrication process to prepare these unique samples,” said Dr Emmanuel Flahut, research director at CNRS.
In this one-step process, they could also dope the graphene with nitrogen and/or metallic (Cobalt and Molybdenum) single-atoms as a promising strategy to produce single-atom catalysts (SACs). In catalysis science, the new field of SACs with isolated metal atoms dispersed on solid supports has attracted wide research attention because of the maximum atom-utilization efficiency and the unique properties of SACs. Compared with rival strategies for making SACs, the method used by the Aalto & CNRS team provides an easy method which takes place in one step, keeping costs down.
Catalyst substrate can boost performance
Catalysts are usually deposited on an underlying substrate. The role this substrate plays on the final reactivity of the catalyst is usually neglected by researchers, however for this new catalyst, the researchers spotted the substrate played an important part in its efficiency. The team found porous structure of their material allows to access more active catalyst sites formed at its interface with the substrate, so they developed a new electrochemical microscopy analysis method to measure how this interface could contribute to catalyze the reaction and produce the most effective catalyst. They hope their study of substrate effects on the catalytic activity of porous materials establishes a basis for the rational design of high-performance electrodes for the electrochemical energy devices and provides guidelines for future studies.
Graphene-based biosensors could usher in an era of liquid biopsy, detecting DNA cancer markers circulating in a patient’s blood or serum. But current designs need a lot of DNA. In a new study, crumpling graphene makes it more than ten thousand times more sensitive to DNA by creating electrical “hot spots,” researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found.
Crumpled graphene could be used in a wide array of biosensing applications for rapid diagnosis, the researchers said. They published their results in the journal Nature Communications.
“This sensor can detect ultra-low concentrations of molecules that are markers of disease, which is important for early diagnosis,” said study leader Rashid Bashir, a professor of bioengineering and the dean of the Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois. “It’s very sensitive, it’s low-cost, it’s easy to use, and it’s using graphene in a new way.”
While the idea of looking for telltale cancer sequences in nucleic acids, such as DNA or its cousin RNA, isn’t new, this is the first electronic sensor to detect very small amounts, such as might be found in a patient’s serum, without additional processing.
“When you have cancer, certain sequences are overexpressed. But rather than sequencing someone’s DNA, which takes a lot of time and money, we can detect those specific segments that are cancer biomarkers in DNA and RNA that are secreted from the tumors into the blood,” said Michael Hwang, the first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Lab at Illinois.
Graphene – a flat sheet of carbon one atom thick – is a popular, low-cost material for electronic sensors. However, nucleic-acid sensors developed so far require a process called amplification – isolating a DNA or RNA fragment and copying it many times in a test tube. This process is lengthy and can introduce errors. So Bashir’s group set out to increase graphene’s sensing power to the point of being able to test a sample without first amplifying the DNA.
Many other approaches to boosting graphene’s electronic properties have involved carefully crafted nanoscale structures. Rather than fabricate special structures, the Illinois group simply stretched out a thin sheet of plastic, laid the graphene on top of it, then released the tension in the plastic, causing the graphene to scrunch up and form a crumpled surface.
They tested the crumpled graphene’s ability to sense DNA and a cancer-related microRNA in both a buffer solution and in undiluted human serum, and saw the performance improve tens of thousands of times over flat graphene.
“This is the highest sensitivity ever reported for electrical detection of a biomolecule. Before, we would need tens of thousands of molecules in a sample to detect it. With this device, we could detect a signal with only a few molecules,” Hwang said. “I expected to see some improvement in sensitivity, but not like this.”
To determine the reason for this boost in sensing power, mechanical science and engineering professor Narayana Aluru and his research group used detailed computer simulations to study the crumpled graphene’s electrical properties and how DNA physically interacted with the sensor’s surface.
They found that the cavities served as electrical hotspots, acting as a trap to attract and hold the DNA and RNA molecules.
“When you crumple graphene and create these concave regions, the DNA molecule fits into the curves and cavities on the surface, so more of the molecule interacts with the graphene and we can detect it,” said graduate student Mohammad Heiranian, a co-first author of the study. “But when you have a flat surface, other ions in the solution like the surface more than the DNA, so the DNA does not interact much with the graphene and we cannot detect it.”
In addition, crumpling the graphene created a strain in the material that changed its electrical properties, inducing a bandgap – an energy barrier that electrons must overcome to flow through the material – that made it more sensitive to the electrical charges on the DNA and RNA molecules.
“This bandgap potential shows that crumpled graphene could be used for other applications as well, such as nano circuits, diodes or flexible electronics,” said Amir Taqieddin, a graduate student and coauthor of the paper.
Even though DNA was used in the first demonstration of crumpled graphene’s sensitivity for biological molecules, the new sensor could be tuned to detect a wide variety of target biomarkers. Bashir’s group is testing crumpled graphene in sensors for proteins and small molecules as well.
“Eventually the goal would be to build cartridges for a handheld device that would detect target molecules in a few drops of blood, for example, in the way that blood sugar is monitored,” Bashir said. “The vision is to have measurements quickly and in a portable format.”
Graphite nanoplatelets integrated into plastic medical surfaces can prevent infections, killing 99.99 per cent of bacteria which try to attach - a cheap and viable potential solution to a problem which affects millions, costs huge amounts of time and money, and accelerates antibiotic resistance. This is according to research from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, in the journal Small.
Every year, over four million people in Europe are affected by infections contracted during health-care procedures, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Many of these are bacterial infections which develop around medical devices and implants within the body, such as catheters, hip and knee prostheses or dental implants. In worst cases implants need to be removed.
Bacterial infections like this can cause great suffering for patients, and cost healthcare services huge amounts of time and money. Additionally, large amounts of antibiotics are currently used to treat and prevent such infections, costing more money, and accelerating the development of antibiotic resistance.
"The purpose of our research is to develop antibacterial surfaces which can reduce the number of infections and subsequent need for antibiotics, and to which bacteria cannot develop resistance. We have now shown that tailored surfaces formed of a mixture of polyethylene and graphite nanoplatelets can kill 99.99 per cent of bacteria which try to attach to the surface," says Santosh Pandit, postdoctoral researcher in the research group of Professor Ivan Mijakovic at the Division of Systems Biology, Department of Biology and Biotechnology, Chalmers University of Technology.
Infections on implants are caused by bacteria that travel around in the body in fluids such as blood, in search of a surface to attach to. When they land on a suitable surface, they start to multiply and form a biofilm - a bacterial coating.
Previous studies from the Chalmers researchers showed how vertical flakes of graphene, placed on the surface of an implant, could form a protective coating, making it impossible for bacteria to attach - like spikes on buildings designed to prevent birds from nesting. The graphene flakes damage the cell membrane, killing the bacteria. But producing these graphene flakes is expensive, and currently not feasible for large-scale production.
"But now, we have achieved the same outstanding antibacterial effects, but using relatively inexpensive graphite nanoplatelets, mixed with a very versatile polymer. The polymer, or plastic, is not inherently compatible with the graphite nanoplatelets, but with standard plastic manufacturing techniques, we succeeded in tailoring the microstructure of the material, with rather high filler loadings, to achieve the desired effect. And now it has great potential for a number of biomedical applications," says Roland Kádár, Associate Professor at the Department of Industrial and Materials Science at Chalmers.
The nanoplatelets on the surface of the implants prevent bacterial infection but, crucially, without damaging healthy human cells. Human cells are around 25 times larger than bacteria, so while the graphite nanoplatelets slice apart and kill bacteria, they barely scratch a human cell.
"In addition to reducing patients' suffering and the need for antibiotics, implants like these could lead to less requirement for subsequent work, since they could remain in the body for much longer than those used today," says Santosh Pandit. "Our research could also contribute to reducing the enormous costs that such infections cause health care services worldwide."
In the study, the researchers experimented with different concentrations of graphite nanoplatelets and the plastic material. A composition of around 15-20 per cent graphite nanoplatelets had the greatest antibacterial effect - providing that the morphology is highly structured.
"As in the previous study, the decisive factor is orienting and distributing the graphite nanoplatelets correctly. They have to be very precisely ordered to achieve maximum effect," says Roland Kádár.
MITO Material Solutions is making a big splash in the graphene and polymers markets in a short amount of time. The U.S-based hybrid-additive solutions provider received just last year $1.1 million for product development funding from the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant program (SBIR) and the State of Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Center for Advanced Science and Technology (OCAST) program.
MITO Materials has used those funds to finance beta testing of their material with a number of polymer and composite manufacturers as well as development of three new products. Some of that beta testing is already complete and pilot programs will likely be launched later this year. Ultimately, MITO Materials’ graphene-enabled material promises to create lighter, tougher, and more durable products for the automotive, wind energy, aerospace, and transportation industries.
MITO Materials recently became a member of the Graphene Council and we took that opportunity to interview MITO Materials' CEO, Haley Marie Keith. Here is our interview.
Q: To start off, can you tell us a little about your main product? What is it? What applications does it serve?
A: MITO Materials manufactures graphene-hybrid modifiers for polymer composites. Our flagship product E-GO, is a hybrid of Polyhedral Oligomeric Silsesquioxane (POSS) and graphene oxide with epoxide functionality.
E-GO is used in a variety of applications such as transportation, energy, sporting goods, law enforcement, marine and other consumer goods applications enabling composite manufacturers to create tougher, lighter, and more durable products. We are characterizing the product in different materials and have seen significant tensile, impact, and flexural improvements.
Our product performs best in fiber reinforced polymer systems, with this specific product focused on applications with epoxide and amine functionalities. These systems benefit the most from E-GO because we see that we increase the adhesion between polymers and substrates. We have other formulations coming in the pipeline in 2020, which includes acrylate and methacrylate functionality hybridized with graphene oxide and a more sustainable modifier created from a waste stream polymer.
Q: You came to learn of this material while at graduate school when one of the professors at your university who invented the material had approved it to be used in your business class to conceptualize a business strategy. You won an award for your conceptualization. But what attracted you to the additive? What was the hook to the material that made you come up with the idea that could make it into a viable business?
A: Growing up in the RV industry, I listened to countless dinnertime conversations about warranty issues revolving around delamination. It was, and still is today, a huge problem that affects many industries that utilize composite materials. Initial research with the additive had shown massive increases to through-thickness toughness (65+%), or Mode 1 measured in (G1c), which is the primary cause of delaminated materials. This was the initial hook that drew me into this product. I saw it solving a real problem. Sitting here three years later, looking back on all that we have come to learn about our material, I am amazed at how many more problems we have the ability to solve.
Q: Back in September, you were in beta testing with resin and composite manufacturers. Have you identified opportunities for early stage pilot engagements?
A: Yes! MITO Materials recently participated in The 2019 Heritage Research Group Accelerator powered by Techstars, which was a great platform to engage with new companies interested in testing and piloting our product. Our Head of Business Development, Caio Lo Sardo, brought in 10 new customers who are currently testing E-GO in early stage applications. A few have already completed testing and we are working toward the first large scale pilot with a couple of large players in various application spaces by summer 2020.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in working with resin and composite manufacturers, i.e. is it a rigorous process, a high learning curve, resistant, open, etc.?
A: Ha ha, all of the above. What my team and I have learned is that it’s all about the network and finding the right people to champion your cause. Overall, resin manufacturers and large companies with big R&D groups tend to have a more rigorous process and more resistance. Composite manufacturers may have a higher learning curve, but for us, it’s easier to communicate the direct value proposition. Everyone we talk to wants more performance, less weight, and easy integration, but finding your way through the web of the composites industry is not for the feint of heart.
Q: This graphene-based additive is certainly not the first graphene-based additive to be commercialized for resin and composite manufacturers. What distinguishes this additive fromthe others? Is it applicable to a wider range of resins and composites?
A: MITO Materials’ additive formulation is a graphene-based hybrid additive, which is a formulation of graphene oxide and POSS. At MITO Materials, we believe that two is always better than one the best innovations come from novel solutions, which is why we found a way to optimize the properties of graphene oxide and POSS to create easy to integrate additive that does not agglomerate, is safe to handle, and provides increases in Tg, tensile, and flexural properties at very low concentrations (0.1% wt). Two pounds of E-GO can produce 2,000lbs of polymer which is enough for 3,000 carbon fiber bike frames, or enough plastic parts to outfit five F-150s.
Q: You are at a certain spot in the value chain, currently. Do you see any value in moving up and/or down the value chain, i.e. developing your own resins, producing your own graphene, etc.?
A: MITO Materials is strategically positioned in the value chain because that is where we add the most value. We are really focused on what our team does best, which is creating sustainable additives to solve real problems in order to empower the next material evolution. This company runs on an innovation model which means that my R&D team creates additives that are scalable and solve real problems, and my technical sales team Kevin Keith and Caio Lo Sardo are experts in integrating our solutions into the market. I believe MITO Materials' position in the value chain is filling a void in this industry. We are an integral piece in the middle in the map, which helps composite manufacturers and resin formulators identify the innovation they need to keep their markets moving forward.
Right now, MITO Materials does not intend or see any value on moving up and producing its own resin or graphene. Instead, we will soon release two new graphene-hybrid additives and we will focus our efforts on teaching the market about the new ways these materials can be used to solve problems at an affordable price.
Advanced materials company First Graphene (FGR) has provided an update on its program to develop novel graphene hybrid materials.
In September 2019, First Graphene signed an exclusive licence agreement with the University of Manchester. This agreement allowed for the manufacture of hybrid-graphene materials by electrochemical processing.
Electrochemical processing can synthesise two valued product groups. These include metal oxide decorated materials with high capacitance for applications in super-capacitors and catalysis, and pristine graphene products for applications in electrical and thermal conductivity.
In October, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC) funded the transfer the technology from university labs to First Graphene's labs.
Since then, First Graphene has successfully transferred the technology to its labs in Manchester. It has also completed two pilot trials at its manufacturing facility in Henderson, WA.
These trials demonstrated the synthesis and manufacture of metal oxide decorated materials and pristine graphene materials.
First Graphene is now testing the performance of these materials in energy storage and catalysis applications.
So far, testing has shown that prototype super-capacitor (coin cell) devices can be made with these materials.
Super-capacitors offer high-power density energy storage and can be charged or discharged fairly quickly. The demand for these devices is expected to grow by 20 per cent each year before reaching a revenue value of A$3.1 billion by 2022.
Unfortunately, however, COVID-19-related restrictions have delayed additional testing.
"We are disappointed that testing is being delayed due to current circumstances but will use this time to strengthen our end-user relationships," Managing Director Craig McGuckin said.
End-users in the aerospace, marine, electric vehicle and utility storage sectors have validated the need for high-performance super-capacitors.
In the meantime, the company is seeking government funding to develop a new supply chain for game-changing super-capacitor devices.
First Graphene is down 22.2 per cent and shares are trading for 7 cents each at 3:01 pm AEDT.
In a study published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Nanoscale,https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2019/nr/c9nr06815e#!div Abstract Spanish and Italian researchers provided a comprehensive and relevant study on the potential of topically applied graphene for irritating the skin.
While graphene producers have heralded this study https://www.graphenea.com/blogs/graphene-news/graphene-not-irritant-to-skin-study-shows as a clear indication that graphene materials do not irritate the skin, it is only one brick in a much larger wall that is still in the very early stages of being built around understanding the potential health risks of graphene exposure, and its safe use, according to Andrew Maynard, https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/2670673 a professor at Arizona State University and an expert on the environmental and health impact of nanomaterials.
Maynard recognizes that the results are significant in that they indicate that there is greater potential for skin harm to occur from the surfactants that some graphene materials are held in, or contain residues of, than from the graphene itself.
“However, while the paper makes an important addition to what is known about the potential impacts or otherwise of skin exposures to graphene, more work is needed to clearly establish how the skin responds to different types and preparations of graphene, and safe limits of graphene skin exposure with regard to irritation,” says Maynard.
Maynard emphasizes that care needs to be taken in comparing skin vs inhalation toxicity/risk/impacts.“Both the exposure mechanisms, the biological barriers and routes, the toxic mechanisms, and the impacts of the outcomes, differ - especially where the end point is irritation rather than other end points,” says Maynard.
While the available exposure area of the skin can make it quite serious if it is exposed to enough material, localized irritation is unlikely to be directly comparable to adverse effects from inhalation, simply because the lungs are vital organs that are highly sensitive to damage. This is true even in instances when the material is able to penetrate through the skin and reach other parts of the body.
Because of the differences between the skin and the lungs, it is dangerous to draw direct comparisons between skin exposure and lung inhalation. Maynard says it more appropriate to consider each system on its own merits and vulnerabilities in terms of exposure and response.
The key formula in understanding the risk of any material is this: risk = hazard (toxicity) x exposure. If a highly toxic material is totally inaccessible, it does not pose a large risk. While a relatively more benign material that is more accessible can pose a larger risk.
While this research brings in the element of skin irritation to discussions of the risk of graphene, there remains a paucity of data, especially when it comes dermal toxicity, despite this most recent research, according to Maynard.
“Like many materials, indications of hazard and risk are highly dependent on many different factors, including the specific material type (including synthesis route and any matrix it is in), exposure route, dose, organs and systems potentially impacted etc.,” says Maynard.“This latest research is the most comprehensive of recent reviews, and indicates that it’s complicated. There is evidence that some forms of graphene are hazardous under certain conditions and scenarios, but the links between hazard are risk (and these links are still vital to assessing risk) remain elusive.”
Maynard agrees with the researchers that because skin exposure is likely to be an issue during production or the use of graphene-based products designed for skin contact, it is important to understand the potential health impacts so they can be avoided.
Maynard adds: “The workplace, even if there’s a hint of possible harm from skin exposure, exposure control is possible by using routine barriers such as gloves, making the possibility of irritation less concerning if good work practices are followed.”
Using a single atom-thick sheet of graphene to track the electronic signals inherent in biological structures, a team led by Boston College researchers has developed a platform to selectively identify deadly strains of bacteria, an advance that could lead to more accurate targeting of infections with appropriate antibiotics, the team reported in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
The prototype demonstrates the first selective, rapid, and inexpensive electrical detection of the pathogenic bacterial species Staphylococcus aureus and antibiotic resistant Acinetobacter baumannii on a single platform, said Boston College Professor of Physics Kenneth Burch, a lead co-author of the paper.
The rapid increase in antibiotic resistant pathogenic bacteria has become a global threat, in large part because of the over prescription of antibiotics. This is driven largely by the lack of fast, cheap, scalable, and accurate diagnostics, according to co-author and Boston College Associate Professor of Biology Tim van Opijnen.
Particularly crucial is identifying the bacterial species and whether it is resistant to antibiotics, and to do so in a platform which can be easily operated at the majority of points of care. Currently such diagnostics are relatively slow - taking from hours to days - require extensive expertise, and very expensive equipment.
The BC researchers, working with colleagues from Boston University, developed a sensor, known as a graphene field effect transistor (G-FET), that can overcome critical shortcomings of prior detection efforts since it is a highly scalable platform that employs peptides, chains of multiple linked amino acids, which are inexpensive and easy-to-use chemical agents, according to co-author and BC Professor of Chemistry Jianmin Gao.
The team set out to show it could construct a device that can "rapidly detect the presence of specific bacterial strains and species, exploiting the large amount of electric charge on their surface and ability to capture them with synthetic peptides of our own design," said Burch.
The initiative built upon the earlier research of van Opijnen and Gao, who previously found peptides were highly selective, but at that time required expensive fluorescence microscopes for their detection. In addition to Burch, Gao, and van Opijnen, the lead co-authors of the paper included Boston University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Xi Ling.
The team modified existing peptides to allow them to attach to graphene, a single atomic layer of carbon. The peptides were designed to bind to specific bacteria, rejecting all others. In essence, the G-FET is able to monitor the electric charge on the graphene, while exposing it to various biological agents.
Due to the selectivity of the peptides, the researchers were able to pinpoint their attachment to the desired bacterial strain, the team reported in the article "Dielectrophoresis assisted rapid, selective and single cell detection of antibiotic resistant bacteria with G-FETs." By electrically monitoring the resistance and, ultimately, charge on the device, the presence of bacteria attached to graphene could be resolved, even for just a single cell.
To enable greater speed and high sensitivity, an electrical field was placed on the liquid to drive the bacteria to the device, again exploiting the charge on the bacteria, the team reported. This process, known as dielectrocphoresis, had never previously been applied to graphene-based sensors and could potentially open the door to dramatically improving efforts in that field to employ graphene for biosensing, the team reported.
"We were surprised how well the bacteria were electrically guided to the devices," said Burch. "We thought it would somewhat reduce the required time and needed concentration. Instead, it worked so well that the electric field was able to bring needed concentration of bacteria down by a factor of 1000, and reduce the time to detection to five minutes."
A day that not only saw a solar eclipse, Friday, 20 March 2015, marked the start of a materials revolution: the opening of the National Graphene Institute (NGI). Since it opened its doors the NGI has played host to some of the world’s most famous faces and set the ball rolling in the advancement of graphene and other two-dimensional materials.
With its unique architectural design the NGI was designed to allow industry and academics to work side by side on new and exciting ideas.
Five years on we take a look at some of the highlights.
No sooner had the paint had dried, did we see the first graphene product: the launch of the graphene lightbulb. This demonstrated the practical uses of graphene and how it could be translated into everyday products.
In June, Manchester hosted the Graphene Flagship’s Graphene Week. The world’s largest graphene and related 2D materials conference. It also included the premiere of Graphene Suite, commissioned by Brighter Sound, the NGI’s composer in residence Sara Lowes collaborated with Professor Cinzia Casirgahi and fellow researchers to create a six-part piece which explored the relationship between science and music.
October saw President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China visit the NGI. He saw the some of the latest developments in graphene applications and took at tour of the world-class facilities.
To conclude the year, the NGI was crowned Major Building Project of the Year at the annual British Construction Industry Awards. Designed by Jestico & Whiles, the NGI fought off strong competition from six other shortlisted schemes including the Weston Library at Oxford University, Five Pancras Square at Kings Cross and the Brooks Building at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The city of Manchester played host to the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) and held the title of European City of Science throughout 2016. To coincide with this, partnering with the Science and Industry Museum, the first graphene exhibition was launched: Wonder Materials: Graphene and beyond. Looking into the past, present and future, this turnkey exhibition brought graphene to life, taking visitors on an immersive journey inside laboratory clean rooms and stimulating learning environments. The exhibition then went tour to Hong Kong.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the NGI in October. Amongst visiting graphene researchers and taking a tour of the impressive cleanrooms, The Duke and Duchess also celebrated the University’s Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD).
An ultralight high-performance mechanical watch made with graphene was unveiled in January thanks to a unique collaboration. The University of Manchester collaborated with watchmaking brand Richard Mille and McLaren F1 to create the world’s lightest mechanical chronograph by pairing leading graphene research with precision engineering.
April saw a scientific breakthrough when a team of researchers led by Professor Rahul Raveendran Nair, developed a graphene oxide membrane which was able to filter out common salts. Known as a ‘graphene sieve’ this demonstrated real-world potential of providing clean drinking water for millions of people who struggle to access adequate clean water sources. The team have gone on to turn whisky clear and produce membranes for oil separation.
Sprinting into 2018 the first graphene running shoes were launched. Collaborating with inov-8, the brand has been able to develop a graphene-enhanced rubber. Rubber outsoles were developed that in testing outlasted 1,000 miles and were scientifically proven to be 50% harder wearing.
A new national graphene characterisation service was launched, in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory. The service, allows companies to understand the properties of graphene and was established to accelerate the industrialisation of graphene in the UK – forging the missing link between graphene research and development, and its application in next generation products.
The summer also saw Newcastle host the Great Exhibition of the North. Once again we partnered with Brighter Sound to launch The Hexagon Experiment. Music, art and science collided in an explosive celebration of women’s creativity. The Hexagon Experiment featured live music, conversations and original commissions from some of the North’s most exciting musicians and scientists.
News of the ‘graphene sieve’ attracted global attention in 2017, which led to Lifesaver partnering with the NGI. The 18 month project focuses on developing graphene technology that can be used for enhanced water filtration, with the goal of creating a proprietary and patented, cutting-edge product capable of eliminating an even wider range of hazardous contaminants than currently removed by its existing high performance ultra-filtration process.
2019 also saw the first operational year of the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. Focusing on the rapid development and scale up of graphene and two dimensional materials. Together, the NGI and GEIC provide an unrivalled critical mass of graphene expertise and infrastructure. The two facilities reinforce Manchester's position as a globally leading knowledge-base in graphene research and commercialisation.
Dr. Swati Ghosh Acharyya, Associate Professor, School of Engineering Sciences and Technology, University of Hyderabad has been selected for the prestigious SERB Women Excellence Award-2020. This award is given to women scientists under the age of 40, who have received honours from various national academies. Women researchers will be assisted by Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, with a grant of Rs 5 lakhs per year for 3 years.
Dr. Swati Ghosh Acharyya’s research encompasses development of novel corrosion resistant materials and surfaces. Her team has recently developed an eco-friendly route for bulk synthesis of graphene under ambient conditions. Graphene based nanocomposites have been fabricated by her team to synthesize corrosion resistant, abrasion resistant, hydrophobic, high temperature resistant and high strength coatings.
These composites would also be used for fabrication of water purification membranes and self powered corrosion resistant sensors for heavy metal ion detection in water. Her project entitled ‘Real time detection of heavy metal ions in ground water by stripping voltammetry using indigenously fabricated self-powered, corrosion resistant, pH insensitive, flexible nano-composite based electrochemical sensors: concept to product (RISE)’ has been recommended under the SERB-Women Excellence Award of Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) for funding.
These are scary times, aren't they? First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who is directly affected by the current global crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It's an extremely serious issue that will require worldwide cooperation to overcome.
I have very clear and distinct memories of the previous SARS epidemic. In March 2003, while working at Rice University, I was helping to lead a group of ~50 science and engineering students on an overseas study trip to Hong Kong and Singapore with my former Rice colleague, Dr. Cheryl Matherly (who is now at Lehigh University). We were caught in the middle of the rapidly developing crisis and our travel itinerary had us departing Singapore for Hong Kong on the day the Singapore government warned its own citizens not to travel to Hong Kong!
Fortunately, everyone in our student group made it through that experience safely, and as unsettling as it was, the current situation is much much worse, with as yet unknown - but sure to be significant - social, economic and political ramifications that will most definitely impact future generations around the world.
I am currently based in Bangkok, Thailand, which is a global tourist destination. While we were fortunately to escape the first wave of of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that emanated from China, we're now faced with a second wave imported from Europe. We're not quite under total lockdown here, but things appear to be headed in that direction. It is clear to me form observation that the several governments in the region (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, to be specific) are applying the lessons they learned from the previous SARS epidemic to help control the current pandemic. This give me hope, and the circumstances in general have given me plenty of time to think and reflect about what - if anything - I and my company, planarTECH, can do to improve this situation.
Graphene: The "Wonder Material"
I was lucky to fall into the world of graphene and 2D materials by accident through acquaintance with another former Rice University colleague, Dr. James Tour, and conversations I had with him 8 years ago. I will not spend a lot of time here talking about the specific properties of graphene as such information is widely available. The European Union's Graphene Flagship project, for example, has an excellent overview. The University of Manchester - where graphene was first isolated and where planarTECH's Chairman, Ray Gibbs, currently serves as the Director of Commercialization for the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre - also has a fantastic YouTube channel with many instructive videos about graphene and its properties.
With all of the amazing properties of graphene, the question is, can it offer any kind of solution to the current pandemic and global crisis?
Academic Work: Graphene's Antiviral Properties
The short answer to the question above is "possibly," but with some caveats. In particular, it would appear that graphene oxide (GO) may play a role in providing a solution.
I should say that I am not a doctor, an epidemiologist or someone with formal training in the biological sciences. I am an engineer by trade, and for the last 8 years, an entrepreneur in the field of graphene. However, since entering the graphene industry, I have grown accustomed to reading academic papers in order to understand the potential applications for graphene.
A paper published in 2015 by researchers at the Huazhong Agricultural University (ironically located in Wuhan, China, where the current pandemic originated) explored the antiviral properties of graphene oxide, and the authors of the paper concluded "that GO and rGO exhibit broad-spectrum antiviral activity toward both DNA virus (PRV) and RNA virus (PEDV) at a noncytotoxic concentration," and that "the broad-spectrum antiviral activity of GO and rGO may shed some light on novel virucide development." While encouraging, it should be noted that the researchers looked specifically at pseudorabies virus (PRV) and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), not the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current global pandemic.
Another paper published in 2017 by researchers at Southwest University in China looked at cyclodextrin functionalized graphene oxide and it's possible role in combatting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), concluding that "the curcumin loaded functional GO was confirmed with highly efficient inhibition for RSV infection and great biocompatibility to the host cells." Likewise, a third paper published in 2019 by researchers at Sichuan Agricultural University in China demonstrated that "GO/HY [graphene oxide/hypericin] has antiviral activity against NDRV [novel duck reovirus] both in vitro and in vivo."
The conclusion we can draw from these works is that graphene oxide may offer a platform to fight a variety of viral infections (such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus), possibly as some form of coating, though certainly more work needs to be done.
(Note that my good friends over at The Graphene Council had a recent and excellent blog post covering the same 3 articles in a little more detail. And kudos to them for shining light on the topic before me!)
Productization: From Lab to Market
If there's one thing I've learned from the past 8 years being involved with graphene commercialization (and the past 14 years working directly in the Asian supply chain) is that it is one matter to write an excellent academic paper as a proof-of-concept, but it is an entirely different matter to take work from an academic lab and turn it into a real product.
With respect to graphene in general, what we are seeing today is definite movement on the Gartner hype cycle from the Trough of Disillusionment to the Slope of Enlightenment. Real products using graphene are now on the market. One such example is the recent announcement of of a collaboration between UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries plc and Korea-based ICRAFT Co., Ltd. that results in the release of a graphene cosmetic face mask. And I am pleased to be able to say that - in connection with my previous responsibilities for Haydale's Asia-Pacific operations - I had some role (together with my colleague Yong-jae "James" Ji) in getting this product off the ground and into the marketplace.
While this may seem like a trivial accomplishment given the context and seriousness of the current global pandemic, I offer this example as proof that graphene can be utilized in an everyday, cost-sensitive product, and it is not such a great conceptual leap to go from a cosmetic face mask to a protective face mask, which as we all know are in great demand these days (especially here in Asia). I would invite iCRAFT (or anyone else) to consider collaboration with planarTECH to develop such a product. (Above photo courtesy of Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash.)
Productization: Existing Products?
Very much related to this topic and very curious is a recent public announcement by LIGC Applications of its Guardian G-Volt face mask with a graphene-based filtration system. However, my understanding is that LIGC is not employing graphene specifically for it's potential antiviral properties but rather for its potential to enhance a filtration system, including (due to graphene's electrical conductivity) the ability to pass an electrical charge through the mask that "would repel any particles trapped in the graphene mask."
What I find very curious about this case is that subsequent to this announcement, LIGC's Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which was live, has now been placed under review, and the company's pitch video on YouTube has likewise been made private. I do not know what has happened here - perhaps is was perceived as poor timing? - but as a fellow entrepreneur who is conducting my own crowdfunding campaign, I wish LIGC the best of luck with its product development and ultimate launch. I definitely want to see more viable graphene products in the marketplace.
The Graphene Supply Chain: planarTECH's Role
One of the challenges the graphene industry faces overall is scalability. Very few graphene companies today (if any at all) can produce graphene at the scale, at the right cost, and with the consistent quality such that it can be used for truly high-volume applications. Over the past 8 years, I have met numerous customers, mostly in Asia, who want to use graphene in their products but cannot find a secure and stable supply that meets their expectations on specification, volume, and price.
At planarTECH we're interested in not only the end applications, but also in solving this problem of production scalability. While we have in the past mainly been focused on production systems for graphene and other 2D materials by Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD), we also recently started offering continuous flow production systems for graphene oxide, which we believe can take graphene oxide production from lab-scale, high-cost (grams per week) to production-scale, low-cost (kilograms per hour). We're actively seeking partners to work with us on setting up production and exploration of the application space for graphene oxide, and we're currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs to help us expand our business and make graphene a commercial reality. As seen above, we think graphene oxide's antiviral properties can be exploited to make new and useful products.
I should clarify and caution that planarTECH is not in the position today to offer a graphene-based product that can immediately help alleviate current crisis and prevent widespread infection. Unfortunately, such a product is realistically 1-2 years away. But what we can offer is market expertise specific to graphene, production technologies, and experience in taking products from the idea phase to a reality in the marketplace.
Conclusion: Graphene is a Possible Solution
To conclude, I would like to reiterate a few broad points.
• Graphene (graphene oxide in particular) and coatings made from graphene would appear to have antiviral properties as reported in several published academic papers.
• Real commercial products exist that use graphene, but the industry as a whole still faces challenges around scalability, cost and quality.
• An immediate graphene-based solution to alleviate the effects of the global SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic is likely unrealistic, but could be possible in the future.
• planarTECH has a role in the supply chain and is seeking partners, as well as investors via its crowdfunding campaign, to expand its business and help end customers develop useful products.