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Making graphene from graphite without oxidation

By Scott Jenkins |

University of Connecticut

University of Connecticut

Graphene can be produced and isolated by exfoliating graphite, but existing processes are difficult and expensive. The most common method involves aggressive oxidation of graphite and results in diminished properties and added expense. Another approach — mechanical exfoliation — requires large energy input and produces small graphene fragments at low yields.

Now a research team at the University of Connecticut (UConn; Storrs; www.uconn.edu) has developed a method to produce graphene from graphite without the need for oxidation or mechanical energy in a simple, thermodynamically driven process that has not been reported before.

The process places graphite at an oil-water interface with high interfacial energy. “If you think of graphite as stacked layers of graphene, placing the graphite material at the oil-water interface causes the graphene layers to unstack and spread out in order to lower the energy of the system, explains UConn professor Douglas Adamson. “The exfoliation is driven thermodynamically, with the graphene acting as a surfactant.”

Adamson’s group has also developed a method for making graphene-polymer composites using the unoxidized (pristine) graphene made in this way. The team takes advantage of the surfactant-like property of graphene and generates a water-in-oil emulsion containing the pure graphene flakes, water and one of a variety of monomers capable of undergoing chain polymerization. By polymerizing the monomer while in the emulsion, the researchers build an open cell foam composite containing a continuous network of graphene without requiring any high-energy processes or oxidation of the graphene.

Adamson and colleagues have formed a company to commercialize the composite materials, which are, in essence, porous electrodes. Their first application will be as electrodes for capacitive deionization (CDI)-based desalination of brackish water. CDI removes ions by adsorbing dissolved salts onto charged electrodes. A major challenge in CDI is the cost of commercial-scale CDI electrodes. Using the UConn team’s stabilized graphene composites as CDI electrodes could allow CDI to enter large-scale use, as their cost to manufacture is lower than polystyrene foam, Adamson says.

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