Researchers at Northwestern University have reassembled one-atom-thick graphene sheets that make up soft and flaky graphite crystals in order to create a tough, flexible, paperlike material. Credit: Dmitriy Dikin
Rodney Ruoff, a Northwestern nanoengineering professor who led the work, published in Nature this week, says that the methods behind making the novel graphene paper could lead to even stronger versions. Right now, water molecules hold together the individual 10-nanometer-thick graphene flakes to create the micrometers-thick graphene paper. By using other chemicals as glues, the researchers could make ultrastrong paperlike materials with various properties. “The future is particularly bright because the system is very flexible … The chemistry is almost infinite,” Ruoff says.
Ruoff’s idea was to “disassemble graphite into individual layers and reassemble them in a different way than they are in graphite.” The goal was to find a way to glue the graphene platelets together while reassembling them, which would create a tough and flexible material.
Since it’s hard to separate the graphene sheets in graphite, the researchers first used an acid to oxidize graphite and make graphite oxide. Then they put the graphite oxide in water. Individual graphene-oxide sheets easily separated in water.
When the researchers filtered the suspension, the graphene-oxide flakes settled down on the filter, randomly overlapping with each other. Water glued the flakes together; its hydrogen atoms bonded with the carbon atoms in adjacent flakes. The result was a dark-brown, thin, flexible graphene-oxide paper. By adjusting the concentration of graphite oxide in the water, the researchers changed the thickness of the paper, ranging from 1 to 100 micrometers.
Ruoff says that he can alter graphene’s chemistry in other ways to change its electrical properties and make it an insulator, a conductor, or even a semiconductor.
That electrical versatility combines with an ultrastrong material has some observers excited. “They haven’t used any tough glue between the [graphene platelets],” Geim says. “I expect very, very tough materials if a proper glue between graphene is used.”