Manufacturing graphene on an industrial scale has long eluded scientists. The so-called ‘wonder material’ combines super strength with the ability to conduct electricity and heat better than any other known material.

Industrial production of this material could lead to its use in everything from flexible displays to more efficient solar cells.

It’s been about a decade since Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim discovered the potential of graphene. Since then, researchers have been trying to find a way to develop the material for on an industrial scale.

Scientists from Penn State have figured out how to pull the layers of graphene apart to make single sheets without damaging it.

“There are lots of layered materials similar to graphene with interesting properties, but until now we didn’t know how to chemically pull the solids apart to make single sheets without damaging the layers,” said Thomas E. Mallouk, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State in a press release.

Mallouk and his fellow colleagues at Penn State along with researchers at the Research Center for Exotic Nanocarbons at Shinshu University, Japan published a paper in the journal Nature Chemistry. In it, they describe a method called intercalation. Basically, ‘guest’ molecules or ions are inserted between the carbon layers of graphite in order to pull a single sheet apart.

Intercalation of graphite isn’t new. It was first done in 1841. The problem, is that a strong oxidizing agent used in the process impacted the properties that make graphene so desirable.

The most popular method to intercalate graphite was developed by Nina Kovtyukhova, a research associate of Mallouk’s.

Mallouk began studying other materials similar to graphite. He then asked Kovtyukhova to try her method on boron nitride, a compound similar to graphite. They were shocked as her method separated the layers. In later experiments, they discovered the oxidizing agent wasn’t required for the separation of layers.

Mallouk then asked her to try the same experiment on graphite. Nina took a bit of convincing since she was sure an oxidizing agent was required.

“I kept asking her to try it and she kept saying no,” Mallouk said. “Finally, we made a bet, and to make it interesting I gave her odds. If the reaction didn’t work I would owe her $100, and if it did she would owe me $10. I have the ten dollar bill on my wall with a nice Post-it note from Nina complimenting my chemical intuition.”

So, when can industries start mass producing the ‘wonder material?’ Scientists still have to figure out how to make the process a bit quicker. But, it’s a step in the right direction.

Image credit: Graphene used in flexible display, JI HYE HONG / NATURE

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