July 28th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Strange Case of the Vanishing Safe Schools Resources

EDITORIAL By-elections will test Shorten's 'politics of envy' strategy

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS A modest proposal for Australia's regional security

CANBERRA OBSERVED Odds are that Labor won't Albo Bill aside

TECHNOLOGY Wonder carbon material on cusp of commercialisation

ENVIRONMENT Electric vehicles still only for elitist planet savers

ENERGY SECURITY Steam rail backup could get us out of hot water

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT NEG papers over crisis behind energy price hikes

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing goes 'boo', Qantas gets in a flap

EUTHANASIA Death with dignity, or putting Death to death?


MUSIC Aural wallpaper: The background hiss to our lives

CINEMA Ant-Man and the Wasp: Downsized superheroes

BOOK REVIEW Timely essays on religious freedom

BOOK REVIEW Fraudulent father of psychoanalysis



No question about it: the Don is in charge

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Wonder carbon material on cusp of commercialisation

by Therese Mount

News Weekly, July 28, 2018

No doubt you have heard of graphite. The material in pencils. And you may also have heard that graphite and diamonds are made of the same thing – they are both pure carbon.

The only difference between graphite and diamond is how the carbon atoms are arranged. One arrangement makes the material extremely brittle (traces are left on paper) and the other makes the material extremely hard (can cut through glass).

Well, there is another material made of pure carbon that is causing a great deal of excitement among university academics and industrial leaders. The material is called graphene and it, like graphite and diamond, is composed of pure carbon. If large-scale, cost-effective production can be achieved, graphene may be the next material to define our age.

What is perhaps the most exciting aspect of graphene is that Australian scientists are involved at the cutting edge of its development.

Graphene is the layer that makes up Graphite. It is one atom thick. Graphite sheds its layers so readily because the bonds between these layers are very weak. Graphene was only a theoretical material until it was successfully isolated in 2004 by Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester. Using scotch tape (of all things!) these scientists repeatedly separated the layers of graphite into a single layer of graphene. For this work, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. The world of graphene with its exciting properties and potential uses was thus born.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern (see illustration). It is the only known 2D material in existence.

How could something so thin be useful? Because the carbon atoms are in a single layer, their respective electrons behave in unconventional ways, giving it some remarkable features. It is 200 times stronger than steel, 40 times harder than diamond, is an extremely good conductor of electricity and heat (in fact it is the most conductive material in existence), can stretch up to 20 per cent of its length and is almost completely transparent and impermeable. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that graphene is going to revolutionise our world!

Despite its remarkable qualities, graphene production on a large scale is still only in development. Nevertheless, graphene continues to attract the attention of academics, not only in physics but also in chemistry, material science and chemical engineering.

Given its remarkable qualities, it is being included in many futuristic designs. Imagine paper-thin phones, computers that you could fold up and put in your pocket, indestructible touch screens and batteries that could charge in seconds. Because of its carbon base, and impermeable and transparent nature, it has been proposed as a bio-friendly packaging alternative. Its uncomplicated surface area has it poised for use as a sensor in medical devices.

The lists go on and on; however, one begins to wonder about the viability of these claims. Can graphene live up to its proposed potential? One problem that needs to be resolved is its production on a large-scale industrial basis. Can it be mass-produced to realise these dreams?

Scientists in Australia are making a huge contribution to devising innovative ways to use and mass-produce graphene. A team at the CSIRO has developed its own low-cost and energy- efficient way of producing graphene, called “GraphAir”. Scientists were able to “grow” continuous films of graphene using this technology. Results from these experiments were published in the journal Nature in 2017.

Dr Zhao Jun Han, co-author of the 2017 paper, claims: “This ambient-air process for graphene fabrication is fast, simple, safe, potentially scalable and integration friendly.”

Current conventional methods are multi-staged, require a highly controlled vacuum environment, and use expensive compressed gases. By comparison, the GraphAir process is a single-step procedure performed in normal atmospheric ambient air and, remarkably, the pre-cursors (the base materials required for graphene synthesis) are simple and inexpensive waste oils.

In an exciting development, in February of this year, scientists from the CSIRO, the University of Sydney, the University of Technology Sydney and Victoria University employed the GraphAir technology to produce a graphene-based water filter. Findings, also published in Nature, indicate that water from Sydney harbour was made drinkable using this filter. These are exciting developments for our Australian research bodies.

Australians are also involved in the industry end of development. Collaboration between research and industry sectors is growing. As recently as June this year the main industrial producer of graphene in Australia, First Graphene Ltd, partnered with the Graphene Engi­neering and Innovation Centre at the University of Manchester to discuss how they could best share their respective expertise.

In a recent spoken interview, Warwick Grigor, non-executive chairman of First Graphene, was asked how long it would be before graphene becomes part of our daily lives. He replied: “There are a number of products that are making it to the market now. We’ve got a rising tide; the more products that we see, the more ubiquitous it will be in peoples’ minds and in industry.

“The big benefit for us in accelerating all that is that, for a small company like FGR, having access to the machinery, the equipment and the personnel is going to be much better.”

It appears there are high hopes for this material. As we wait to see whether graphene’s grand-scale potential is realised, we can be encouraged by the contribution our scientists and industry leaders are making.

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