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Graphene Revolution Under Way
July 29, 2011   
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Włodzimierz Strupiński, Ph.D., of the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME),
talks to Piotr Bartosz.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education has set aside funds to enable Polish researchers to further develop their original method to produce graphene and then put it to a commercial use. What is the point in seeking new methods now that graphene has been obtained by professors Geim and Novoselov?

The two scientists received the Nobel Prize for obtaining free-standing graphene—a small graphene flake that can be seen through a microscope, measured and studied to reveal its fantastic properties. Such flakes, however, are obtained by mechanical exfoliation of graphite with adhesive tape and they are never larger than 0.002 square millimeters. That way, even though their physical properties can be subject to extensive research, the flakes could hardly be used for industrial production in microelectronics. One square micrometer of graphene obtained in this way costs around £0.50, which means that a graphene sheet the size of 1 square centimeter obtained with this method would cost hundreds of millions of zlotys. Neither research laboratories nor medium-sized businesses could ever afford that. This explains why graphene research has so far been conducted on tiny flakes not exceeding 2,000 micrometers in size. Several thousand British pounds, on the other hand, could be regarded as a normal expense with an advanced project and so as their research progressed, the future Nobel Prize winners searched for partners to devise more sophisticated methods to produce graphene.

What is so special about the Polish method?

Researchers around the world have been trying to find the most productive yet cost-efficient way to obtain graphene, because once graphene becomes a commonplace product, its prices will drop and allow research on industrial applications of the material. The first companies to patent graphene-based devices and put them on the market will revolutionize electronics as we know it. The Polish technology to produce graphene modifies a method developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. In 2004, the researchers there patented a method to produce graphene that relies on growing a thin layer of carbon on a plate of silicon carbide. Heated in high temperatures, the silicon evaporates leaving a thin layer of carbon and that is graphene. However, the American patent is only applicable to highly specialized devices that are not easy to produce, let alone use in industry.

Have the Polish scientists simplified the method?

We have used standard devices to obtain epitaxial semiconducting structures. We are the only ones to do so for now and this might be a turning point in graphene production on a large scale. The Polish method is more useful, flexible and should be better suited to industrial purposes.

Is the word out yet?

An article on the Polish research has been printed in the prestigious Nano-Letters scientific journal, drawing a huge interest from both research centers and businesses around the world.

Is your intellectual property adequately protected from whoever might want to copy your research?

The research team at the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology has been working with researchers at the University of Warsaw and other research centers in Poland and abroad to continually develop the technology, but the method as such has already been patented. The application was submitted to the Polish patent authority in May 2010 and at the same time we applied to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education for a grant to extend the patent protection to other countries. We have been awarded the funds and I have signed the grant agreement with the ministry. The ministry has provided us with funds to pay for patent procedures necessary for global protection over the next 18 months and then several more years in the EU, the United States, Japan and, possibly, the rest of the world as well. Coupled with the article in the journal, read by all researchers dealing with graphene in the world, the patent puts us in a very comfortable position. It allows us to plan ahead and further develop the technology for both research purposes and commercial applications. Now that the patent is there, anybody who wants to do what we do has to be very careful and at least in theory, buy rights or simply order graphene from us. This gives us psychological comfort and financial security, which are the tangible benefits of the patent we have secured. We have our method and whenever a huge corporation tries to use it, we have legal protection, even if the procedures are complicated.

Will Poland produce graphene or graphene-based devices?

The broad patent enables us, the holders of the rights to the technology, to legally produce graphene in Poland for commercial use. We can market the material and, more importantly, develop new technology aimed at applying graphene in various devices. We aspire beyond graphene production and marketing, even if that alone is definitely a big success and a guarantee of profits. Still, only the final product, a graphene-based device, will have the highest added value. Now that we have made the first step in this area, placing us among the global leaders when it comes to the technology to obtain graphene, it would be a good thing to keep working on the technology in Poland. A key element of this strategy is to encourage the ministries of science and economy along with the business community to continue investing in different concepts of graphene use.

What do you think will be the first graphene-based devices in our homes?

South Koreans have started working on technology to produce large touchscreens, 30 inches and more, which employ graphene as the conducting layer on the inner side of the screen. In this case, the graphene replaces indium oxide. In the production, graphene is first applied to copper foil unrolled from a cylinder and then, after the copper is removed chemically, the graphene is put on to the touchscreens. Devices of this kind are expected to be cheaper than those based on indium, the prices of which keep rising. The Koreans have chosen the Asian way, that is, invested hundreds of millions of dollars right away to be able to launch large-scale and thus faster and cheaper production.

Other practical applications that might be developed soon include what is known as flexible electronics. A strap of very thin foil could be used as a cell phone worn around the wrist like as a bracelet and then stretched to the size of a tablet computer and used as one.

When will these scientific visions materialize?

They will probably take a whole decade before they become reality. Sooner than that graphene may begin to be used in all kinds of electrodes, though not necessarily in every house. Graphene conducts electricity and at the same time light can shine through it. Such transparent electrodes could thus be placed over solar batteries that may be soon out on the market. It’s necessary to remember that new fields of research in electronics are usually top secret. It is probably a matter of several years before graphene-based electronic circuits can be built. This is, after all, a brand-new material. Research on its potential applications has just begun and in this day and age, it takes advanced technology. It’s a little like using a computer—you first need to learn the ropes before you can start working on it. Matching different kinds of technology will take time. The IBM corporation unveiled the first graphene-based transistor in 2010. But we are talking one-atom-thick layers. It’s hard to imagine processing such material into a microprocessor, for example. These are extremely complicated processes, but given the current level of technology, we may expect graphene to be used in state-of-the-art electron devices a few years from now.

Speaking of the current state of technology, what are the prospects for the Polish research to be put to a commercial use?

If graphene technology develops into a powerful sector, nothing will stand in the way of setting up a new, commercial company. I can see how such a spin-off business could work in the future with the University of Warsaw on the one hand and the Epi-Lab.com laboratory at the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology on the other. Such partners would match the tradition of the Institute, which is the only research center in Poland and one of few in the world to produce graphene of such high quality using such sophisticated methods. The Institute will hold shares in the new company that will be established to put our research to a commercial use. We have been seriously considering the spin-off, approached by various business circles. The talks are well advanced. We also have the support of the Ministry of the Economy, which helps us get in touch with Polish companies that might be interested in investing in graphene research.

Are Polish companies ready for that?

They are ready to invest, but the technological foundations and infrastructure for the graphene industry are yet to be organized. We are hoping for a national research program to tap the potential of Polish research centers, the way it has been done in other countries. A program like that would help build the know-how and develop partial technology. The graphene industry will take two or three years to build and the process will involve setting up companies to produce graphene and then design and build graphene-based devices.

That aside, next year the EU will launch its huge Flagship Program for CO2 Capture and Storage. Several projects have been submitted for the program and some of them are graphene-related. Graphene research is likely to be approved for financing and when that happens, Europe will assign around 100 million euros to the research every year over the next decade. If science and research institutions in Poland succeed in becoming part of the program, vast prospects will open for the technology to be developed at Polish companies. I believe that given our achievements so far, the odds are we will succeed and enter the program, but the point is to become involved in it as extensively as possible. We need that badly because for now the research on graphene has been conducted by a small group of people. The Flagship Program would bridge the gap between what is being done in Poland and the potential available in Europe.

Who are the Polish researchers?

They include Prof. Jacek Baranowski, Prof. Roman Stępniewski, Prof. Andrzej Wysmołek, Prof. Andrzej Witowski, Prof. Jerzy Krupka, Aneta Drabińska, Ph.D., Rafał Bożek, Ph.D., and scientists in France. We have been doing the research for many years and so we also conducted experiments together Prof. Andre Geim, who went on to win the Nobel Prize. In 2008 when no more than 30-40 publications were printed annually about graphene, compared with thousands today, I gave lectures about graphene at a conference in Barcelona, published articles and conducted research. When you think of my team’s accomplishments, it was only natural that Geim asked me to bring samples of Polish-made graphene to his laboratory in Manchester. Geim and Novoselov followed up on the idea to chemically alter the properties of graphene in order to obtain a dielectric from a conducting material. Along with graphene flakes, they used the Polish samples. The project was concluded with a publication I co-authored.

In 2007, engineers from the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology, supported by the Physics Faculty of the University of Warsaw, started researching a method to obtain graphene for use in electronics. Called epitaxial graphene, this type is grown on silicon carbide. Initially, we used an American method patented in 2004 where the silicon was made to evaporate in a vacuum. We then modified the method by conducting the process in an argon atmosphere instead. The modification seemed quite trivial at the time so we did not even bother to publish it. Then, our colleagues in Germany came up with a similar idea and their article in Nature Materials has since become one of the most frequently cited papers on graphene production. Eventually, we developed the technology to grow carbon on a substrate of silicon carbide and applied for a patent for it. This time, we published the results. I am saying “this time,” because professors Geim and Novoselov had submitted the article for publication in Nature, but it was rejected by the magazine’s reviewers. The magazine must have regretted their decision when the names of that year’s Nobel Prize winners were announced just days later. Interestingly enough, a similar thing happened back in 2004 when Nature turned down their breakthrough paper on the discovery of graphene. The article was subsequently published in Science magazine.

What did your work with Geim and Novoselov exactly involve?

The two Nobel Prize winners were exploring ways to modify graphene. The team at the University of Manchester used fluorination to obtain what is now known as fluorographene. While preserving the amazing durability of graphene, fluorographene is a totally insulating material whose properties are similar to those of Teflon. It does not conduct electric charges nor does it enter into chemical reactions with anything. After all, it is just carbon; it is not toxic. Fluorographene is also more durable than Teflon and so there is no way of scratching its surface. Obviously, due to the high production costs we are not talking frying pans here. The inventors wanted to use fluorographene in electronics. The point was for the graphene, which was an excellent material for use in electronics for its conducting properties, to be also turned into a one-atom-thick insulator. When one-atom-thick dielectric graphene is used to separate two layers of conductive graphene, the efficiency of an entire electronic structure may significantly increase. You can think of interesting electronic applications of such graphene heterostructures in technology similar to microprocessor manufacturing, which involves lots of semiconducting elements separated by insulating materials. Future applications may also evolve toward low-resistance coatings. It is possible that even though that project is over, new science conferences will bring about ideas for new applications of graphene which the team of Prof. Geim has produced in our laboratory.

Is Poland ready to build a Graphene Valley?

What we have is a unique method to produce graphene on an industrial scale using standard equipment. The Polish Graphene Valley could provide different industries with technology that defies physics theories as we know it. The race began many years ago when the laws of physics ruled out the existence of two-dimensional matter—such as one-atom-thick carbon sheets that would not roll or disintegrate and feature bonds stronger than those in diamond, the hardest of all minerals. Back then, visionaries would play with flying frogs, but then they discovered an extraordinary semiconductor that could possibly replace silicon. Transparent, stretchy and durable, graphene became the perfect material for electronics. It can be processed into electrodes in touchscreens and liquid crystal displays, into transistors, microprocessors and time will tell what else. The Polish method to produce graphene of very high quality meets the high requirements of the electronic industry. Graphene obtained with chemical methods, where mechanical and optical properties are more important than electrons transfer, can be used to make composite materials, transparent electrodes in solar batteries, supercapacitors, and hydrogen fuel cells.

New opportunities are opening before Polish industry. Is the same true of Polish science?

As a field of research, graphene is extremely interesting. Electrons in an ultra thin layer of carbon atoms behave as if they lost mass and became photons. Graphene has high conductivity and mechanical durability. It is also used for chemical and genetic research. Graphene-based materials will be light and extremely durable. Graphene for research can be now purchased online, for example from a Manchester-based company, but tiny graphene flakes can only be used for lab research and the same is true of the method developed by Geim and Novoselov. This problem drives another rapidly developing field of research, aimed at devising an economically viable technology to produce graphene. Such a technology would open brand-new tactical prospects before the biggest players in global electronics. Imagine your small personal computer fitted with a processor that works a thousand times faster than now, developing processing speeds currently available only from huge and expensive computers used for complicated computations.

When will Polish scientists start making big money working together with the biggest players in global electronics?

This will not happen overnight. Once graphene starts being produced in large quantities, the prices will take a plunge, but thinking long-term about graphene is absolutely worthwhile. For the time being, nobody sells large sheets of graphene and work continues on new and improved technology to obtain graphene because of the remarkable prospects it offers. Only the final product will have the highest added value. It is easy to sell these sheets now and let somebody do something interesting with them. But nobody does that, because that would be like giving up without a fight. For that reason, you cannot really buy epitaxial graphene. We are not being hasty when it comes to marketing graphene, either, even though we sell other semiconducting structures we produce and take orders from the best electronic companies in the world. The Epi-Lab.com laboratory has been selling its products amid a lot of interest and is keen to expand its product range. The Institute of Electronic Materials Technology, in turn, has made a major contribution to the development of the Polish Graphene Valley.

Extraoridinary potential
Polish scientists have made a considerable contribution to trail-blazing research on graphene that won two Russian-born professors working at the University of Manchester in England the Nobel Prize in Physics last year.

Graphene is a material that could have myriad hi-tech applications and may even replace silicon in electronic devices in the future. The two Nobel Prize-winning physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, first produced it by decidedly low-tech means. They shared the prize for their work producing and characterizing the material.

Polish researcher Włodzimierz Strupiński, Ph.D., worked with Geim as the latter was studying the extraordinary properties of graphene together with Novoselov.

A procedure to patent a method for the industrial production of graphene is under way in Poland.

Transparent, flexible and durable, graphene would be a perfect material for use in electronics. It could be used to make electrodes in LCD and touchscreens, transistors, microchips and probably many other components.

The Warsaw-based Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME) is working to improve the method for producing graphene.
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