Nanotechnology: Getting the Goods on Graphene

September 2011

Graphene is a single atomic layer of graphite characterized by a crystal structure reminiscent of chicken-wire. It is also a very hot research subject: the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to researchers in this field, and huge sums are being directed into graphene research by both industry and government.

Part of the appeal is the material’s many peculiar properties: it is a crystal, a solid, a surface and a molecule, and bears the characteristics of all of these. It is also one of the stiffest materials known, it is optically transparent, and it is an extremely good electrical conductor.

“Combining graphene’s properties is likely to lead to entirely new applications,” says McGill Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Thomas Szkopek, whose lab is carrying out important research into this nanomaterial.

Combining characteristics

“One major challenge involves growing graphene and transferring it onto substrates more efficiently, and we are working on that problem with collaborators in Montreal and Poland. But we are more focused on what can you do with it.”

For instance, because graphene is a molecule, it participates in chemical reactions; and as a solid, it is a semiconductor that can be used in a transistor.

“If you put these characteristics together, you can use it as a gas sensor that could sit on an integrated circuit, which could replace the bulky and expensive sensors we use currently,” says Szkopek.

In addition, if we learn more about how graphene behaves at very high microwave frequencies, we can take advantage of its conductive and magnetic properties to produce innovative telecommunications components.

In collaboration with McGill Materials Engineering Professor Marta Cerruti and General Motors, Szkopek is working on batteries made with graphene.

“The case with graphene now is like that of lasers when they were invented,” Szkopek says. “Lasers enabled new technologies, and that is what we are anticipating for graphene.

We are taking advantage of the fact that no one particular quality of graphene is as special as the combination of two or more of them, and trying to find ways to combine these qualities to do things you cannot do with any other material.”

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