Graphene has put its foot in the door towards real-world electronics

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Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University

Original news release was issued by the Iowa State University.

Graphene is essentially a wonderkid material, as we have reported time and time again. It’s great at conducting heat and electricity, and it’s extremely strong and stable, on top of being only an atom thick. These amazing properties would single-handedly transform the world of consumer electronics, not to mention industrial applications.¬†But researchers have struggled to move beyond tiny lab samples for studying its material properties to larger pieces for real-world applications.

Recent projects that used inkjet printers to print multi-layer graphene circuits and electrodes had the engineers thinking about using it for flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. For example, “Could we make graphene at scales large enough for glucose sensors?” asked Suprem Das, an Iowa State postdoctoral research associate in mechanical engineering and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.

“The breakthrough of this project is transforming the inkjet-printed graphene into a conductive material capable of being used in new applications,” Claussen said.

But there were problems with the existing technology. Once printed, the graphene had to be treated to improve electrical conductivity and device performance. That usually meant high temperatures or chemicals — both could degrade flexible or disposable printing surfaces such as plastic films or even paper.

Das and Claussen came up with the idea of using lasers to treat the graphene. Claussen, an Iowa State assistant professor of mechanical engineering and an Ames Laboratory associate, worked with Gary Cheng, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering, to develop and test the idea.

Suprem Das holds graphene electronics printed on a sheet of paper. Das and Jonathan Claussen, right, are using lasers to treat the printed graphene electronics. The process improves conductivity and enables flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. (Photo by Christopher Gannon)
Suprem Das holds graphene electronics printed on a sheet of paper. Das and Jonathan Claussen, right, are using lasers to treat the printed graphene electronics. The process improves conductivity and enables flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. (Photo by Christopher Gannon)

And it worked: They found treating inkjet-printed, multi-layer graphene electric circuits and electrodes with a pulsed-laser process improves electrical conductivity without damaging paper, polymers or other fragile printing surfaces.

“This creates a way to commercialize and scale-up the manufacturing of graphene,” Claussen said.

Its applications could include sensors with biological applications, energy storage systems, electrical conducting components and even paper-based electronics.

To make all that possible, the engineers developed computer-controlled laser technology that selectively irradiates inkjet-printed graphene oxide. The treatment removes ink binders and reduces graphene oxide to graphene — physically stitching together millions of tiny graphene flakes. The process makes electrical conductivity more than a thousand times better.

That localized, laser processing also changes the shape and structure of the printed graphene from a flat surface to one with raised, 3-D nanostructures. The engineers say the 3-D structures are like tiny petals rising from the surface. The rough and ridged structure increases the electrochemical reactivity of the graphene, making it useful for chemical and biological sensors.

All of that, according to Claussen’s team of nanoengineers, could move graphene to commercial applications.

“This work paves the way for not only paper-based electronics with graphene circuits,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “it enables the creation of low-cost and disposable graphene-based electrochemical electrodes for myriad applications including sensors, biosensors, fuel cells and (medical) devices.”

Editorial Staff

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