New nano-factory to boost graphene research

Graphene has been hailed as a wonder material which could replace silicon in microchips thanks to its strength and conductivity, and researchers in the South-West have developed a nano-factory which will allow them to build new devices onto a single layer of the material.

The nano-factory is housed at the recently-opened Graphene Centre Laboratory at the University of Bath. The laboratory is part of the Centre for Graphene Science, which combines the expertise of scientists at Bath and the University of Exeter.

“Graphene is a remarkable material made of a single layer of carbon atoms,” said Professor Simon Bending from Bath’s Department of Physics. “Combining high strength, transparency and flexibility with excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, it has many potential applications.”

Based on the work of Dr Adelina Ilie – a lecturer in Physics at Bath – the nano-factory is a specially adapted scanning probe microscope that can build new materials and create rapid prototypes of novel devices which have never been made before.

“The nano-factory works like a tiny stencil, which can spray patterns of different materials onto a layer of graphene,” said Ilie. “This allows us to build new types of devices directly onto graphene, layer by layer, to directly probe and exploit its unique properties.”

Dr Peter Sloan added that the nano-factory will allow researchers to build bespoke atomic-scale structures one atom at a time to link with the stencilled devices.

“Not only will we make prototypes of unique graphene-based devices, but we can really play around with some exciting fundamental physics,” he said.

Researchers will also use the new Centre to investigate the properties of carbon nanotubes. Ilie has combined nanotubes with other elements to make hybrid carbon nanomaterials that are electronically patterned – like striped candy canes. The stripes are so narrow that electrons are guided along them – suggesting they could be used as electronic connections in a quantum computer.

Graphene could be used to develop faster electronic devices like advanced mobile phones, superfast computers, flexible touch screens and medical sensor devices.

“The new laboratory will enable is to investigate the huge potential applications of graphene and carbon nanotubes,” said Ilie. “The sky’s the limit!”

The Centre has been funded by a £5m award from the EPSRC/HEFCF Science and Innovation Awards Scheme and strategic investments from both universities.

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