A relatively new substance called graphene is being hailed as the wonder material of the 21st century, but no one has developed a way to mass produce it.
However, one Irish scientist says he may have a solution.
Graphite is another name for pure carbon, a well-known material used for - among other things - pencil lead.
But when the layers of graphite are separated into sheets only one atom thick, the material, known as graphene, behaves quite differently. At that level, the atoms form strict geometric patterns, making it not only stronger than steel but also the best conductor of heat and electricity.
Theoretically, graphene could radically change the way we manufacture batteries, computer chips and flexible screens, or approach cancer therapy.
Industry experts say separating and manipulating extremely thin sheets of graphene is a huge challenge.
“One of the things that's been holding this back is a supply of large scale, large quantities of graphene, good quality graphene, at reasonably low cost,” said Keith Paton of chemical manufacturer Thomas Swan.
But Jonathan Coleman, at the materials science center of Trinity College in Dublin, says it can be done by mixing graphite with water and a surfactant, a form of soap, in an ordinary kitchen blender. The rapidly rotating blade separates the layers, which stick to the blender’s wall.
“At this early stage there's also graphite in there, so we have to go through a processing stage where we separate the graphite from the graphene and when we do that we get this nice black liquid here and what this is, is graphene in water with surfactant,” Coleman said.
Coleman, the project's principal investigator, says once this process is perfected and adjusted for large-scale production, graphene will begin to change the way we manufacture many items - from high-strength plastic to printed electronic circuits.
“There will be many applications that will involve its conductivity, so if you make a very very thin layer of graphene on a surface that layer is conductive and so, for example, it can be used as electrodes in solar cells or batteries,” he said.
Scientists say this wonder material could be also used in water treatment plants and for cleaning up oil spills. Large scale production may start by the end of this year.