Chemical of the Week 7 – Graphene

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It harder than diamond, a better electrical conductor than copper and stronger than steel – it can only be the Nobel winning material Graphene. I thought this current material ties in well with the last post on chemical structures.  The great thing about graphene is that as it is a single layer of graphite most GCSE students are able to draw the structure and explain its properties. Graphene is a 2D hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms and its large scale delocalised electron system make it very stable. It was discovered in Manchester in 2004 by Professors Geim and Novoselov and they were awarded the Nobel prize for the material in 2010.

Graphene has come a long way from its breakout in 2010 and the UK government has invested £50 million in the Graphene Institute. The idea is to take this material all the way from lab to the shop floor and position the UK once again as a technological leader. Although Geim and Novoselov created Graphene by using sticky tape to peel a single layer from a sample of graphite, making large amounts of this material is not straight forward. Applications of graphene are wide ranging from replacing rare or less efficient materials in electronics to transparent cabin wall membranes in airplanes that allow passengers panoramic views.

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But what’s current with Graphene – it’s Kirigami. Kirigami is a variation of origami in which the artist cuts paper to transform a two-dimensional sheet into three-dimensional structure. Paper will tear when stretched but if cut it becomes more flexible – remember all the paper snowflakes you made during the week before Christmas at school !  A stretchable and bendable transistor has been made by researchers in the US by applying the principles of Kirigami to graphene. I think this just illustrates the beauty inherent in chemistry – the marriage of an ancient Japanese art with a recently discovered ground breaking material leading to a cutting edge technological development.

But move over Graphene – hot of the press, the current edition of Nature has an article about graphene’s cousin Stanene. Stanene is a 2D material made of tin ( instead of carbon) and is described as a topological insulator. This means electrons can’t travel in the bulk of the material but can along the edges and topological insulators are the one sure thing to get physicists excited these days. I’m not even going to begin to explain how a topological insulator works ( ie don’t really understand it ) but I found this really interesting blog post which I was just about able to follow !

http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2010/07/20/whats-a-topological-insulator/

I’ll leave you with a quote from Wolfgang Pauli – ‘God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.’

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