The Graphene Economy: Material Science Magic in Research Labs

This week we are diving further into the world of new discoveries in physics & material science laboratories. Coincidentally, there’s been a lot of popular press coverage in the last few days shouting about how scientists can now convert light (photons) and gold into particles (mass) using Einstein’s equation E = MC2. While this makes a great headline (perhaps one lifted right out of some alchemy pseudo-science texts from the Middle Ages) the back-story is a little less compelling.

material science in research labs

 

This physics experiment, first proposed by Breit and Wheeler back in 1934, has yet to be conducted! But it does look like it might be sometime in the near future as efforts to develop a functioning laboratory apparatus to conduct this experiment gather steam. Details to follow— possibly in 24 to 48 months. (The moral to the story is you have to read reports of scientific breakthroughs in the popular press carefully.)

 

Computer Aided Design (CAD) Revolution Invades Materials Science

We’ve talked a lot about revolutions in science, industry and manufacturing over the past year: from the revolution in American Manufacturing, to astounding new health care technologies like surgical implants printed on 3-D printers, to ways that architects and space planners are using 3-D design programs to collaborate with us here at Formaspace to manufacture custom technical furniture like industrial workbenches and casework (and test everything virtually even before building construction begins!). Computer-Aided Design (CAD) is a common thread behind many of these breakthroughs. Industry by industry, CAD has grown to become a major force in helping designers, engineers and scientists understand and simulate ideas and concepts, then test them —  without having to build numerous physical prototypes.

Instead, CAD allows designers to create a select number of designs for final validation and testing to make sure theory matches reality. For example, in the automotive industry, a branch of computer-aided design called Finite Element Modeling (FEM) made one of its first appearances at General Motors on their original Cadillac Seville design program in the mid-1970s. Use of FEM was a resounding success: it cut the time required for developing the Seville’s body and frame design by at least six months. And by the early 1990s, CAD achieved another major breakthrough, this time in the commercial aerospace industry. Boeing’s 777, considered the workhorse of international flight, was designed entirely on the computer using CATIA software from IBM and Dassault Systemes.

 

CAD Software, image by Autodesk
CAD Software, image by Autodesk

 

Computer Aided Design at the Molecular Level: Designer Compounds

Now CAD and its related visualization technologies have expanded far beyond the automotive and aerospace industries. Every day we are learning about its impact on the fields of material science, physics, analytical chemistry, biological research, drug discovery, genetics and genomics and more. For example, in the field of drug discovery, several parallel technologies are coming together right now. First, we have high-powered computers that can identify, design, and predict chemical interactions between drug compounds at the theoretical level. In many cases, computer software can also make use of large genetic libraries, like the one at Harvard University, to identify likely drug candidates.

Second, we have sequenced the human genome as well as those of many plants and animals, which gives us a fundamental insight into genomic processes and chemical interactions which are vital for life — and how they may come under attack by disease. Third, new technologies are coming online that can help us validate drug discoveries by observing drug activity in living organisms, such as laboratory mice. This past April, researchers at the University of Edinburgh published a paper in Nature that explains how they have been able to use automated microscopes to track the physical activity of drug candidates in treating different types of cancer in live patients (laboratory mice in this case).

This approach, which is known as phenotypic drug discovery, utilizes fluorescent dyes to monitor the drug interaction with diseased cells. Much like crash testing a CAD-designed car prototype, or stress testing a new wing design at Boeing, this innovation from the University of Edinburgh helps ‘close the loop’ by providing new tools to test drug discoveries in live patients — not just in the test tube or petri dish.

 

There’s Still Room for Scientific Discovery Breakthroughs by the Naked Eye: The Serendipitous Discovery of Graphene

Unlike past discoveries in material science, where you could touch and feel different types of steel or iron or aluminum, many of the most exciting new discoveries are simply too small for the human eye to see. More often than not, today’s materials scientists and experimental physicists work at the cellular, nano and even atomic and subatomic particle levels. But don’t let the power of computers and electron microscopes blind you to making discoveries with your own eyes. You could win a Nobel Prize!

If you’re not familiar with the story of the discovery of Graphene, it’s worth taking a moment to recount this exciting discovery, which was made — not with millions of dollars of laboratory test equipment — but with some simple ordinary adhesive tape that you could buy at the office supply store. You may have already heard the term carbon nanotubes, which are incredibly small tubes that are one carbon atom thick. For a long time, scientists thought it would be theoretically possible to make sheets of carbon atoms, also one atom thick. The search for how to create this material, dubbed Graphene, became a Holy Grain in the material science and physics community because it promised to make lighter, stronger ‘miracle’ materials as well as improve the efficiency of electronic devices, such as solar cells.

 

How Can You Create a Sheet of Carbon Atoms in the Laboratory?

Perhaps you could somehow unroll a carbon nanotube onto a flat surface to create this particular molecule. But that method didn’t work; it turns out the rolled form is a lower-energy state. In fact, for a very long time no one had been able to figure out how to physically construct this flat sheet of carbon atoms. Then, back in 2004, two Russian physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were working at the University of Manchester in the UK.

They were fooling around with some blocks of graphite (which is the ‘lead’ found in pencils) and some ordinary adhesive tape. Like Graphene, ordinary Graphite is also made up of carbon atoms. But Graphite’s carbon atoms are laid out in the form of the hexagonal pattern — not unlike chicken wire, except in three dimensions. Remember, Graphene is only one atom thick. If you conduct an experiment and shave down a block of Graphite to a thickness of just 1 mm and then examine it under an electron microscope, you’ll discover that even though it appears very very thin to the naked eye, it’s still made up of around 3 million individual layers of carbon atoms. That’s about 2,999,999 more layers than you need for Graphene.

So, Geim and Novoselov decided to apply a piece of tape to the graphite block and pull of the top layer which stuck to the tape. It wasn’t a full 1 millimeter thick but even so it was comprised of a huge number of carbon layers. But then they decided to try something different. (We’re reminded of those annoying online advertisements that say “try this one weird old trick” but … what happened next was kind of a weird trick).  Geim and Novoselov decided to use a new piece of tape to remove the top layer of graphite stuck to the first piece tape. And they did it again. And again and again. By doing this repeatedly, they were eventually able to whittle the graphite down to a one atom thick layer of carbon atoms. They had created the prized one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms known as Graphene. Six years later, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize. We’re quite sure their award is taped to the wall!

 

Graphite and Tape, image by NaturPhilosophie
Graphite and Tape, image by NaturPhilosophie

The New Graphene Economy? The UK and US Governments Place Their Bets While Samsung Charges Ahead

Recently the UK has begun taking a much more aggressive stance in defending its scientific laboratory achievements. Earlier we wrote about Pfizer’s attempted takeover of Astra Zeneca. To date, London-based Astra Zeneca seems to have thwarted Pfizer’s hostile takeover bid, which was seen by many in the UK as undermining their scientific laboratory infrastructure. The UK scientific community is also working very hard to reverse a trend whereby many of its historic laboratory discoveries have been commercialized by companies located outside of the UK.

For example, the British government has underwritten a new $100 million National Graphene Institute in Manchester, England, where Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first discovered Graphene in 2004. The US government is also pursuing its own aggressive industrial development policies by establishing several research institutes dedicated to speeding up the transfer of scientific research — from the laboratory to commercialized products for our industrial economy. In the case of advanced materials science, this effort is dubbed the “Materials Genome Initiative” and a range of institutions from the University of Georgia to Harvard University have announced their participation.

Meanwhile, it’s been reported that Samsung electronics, based in South Korea, may have filed the largest portfolio of patent applications relevant to potential uses of Graphene — for product features such as flexible touchscreen displays. In a future article we will look at how laboratory science discoveries, such as Graphene and other thin film materials, could revolutionize the world of consumer product electronics in the years or even months ahead.

 

Formaspace is Here to Help

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If you are involved in laboratory research and material science, consider giving us a call at 800.251.1505. We have a lot of experience in helping make your laboratory operations more efficient and productive. One of our technical furniture consultants will be happy to provide you with examples of how Formaspace customers love their custom designed workspaces and laboratory furniture.

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