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Scientists cook up material 200 times stronger than steel out of soybean oil
ABC Science By James Bullen
Posted about 9 hours ago
PHOTO: Dr Dong Han Seo, a co-author of the study, looks at a piece of graphene film produced by the new method (Supplied: CSIRO)
An everyday cooking oil has been used to make graphene in a lab — a development scientists said could significantly reduce the cost and complexity of making the super-substance on a commercial scale.
Graphene, which is made of a layer of tightly-packed carbon, is light, 200 times stronger than steel and more conductive than copper.
With its super qualities, it has the potential to be used in everything from electronics, to solar cells, to medicine.
But it is very difficult and costly to make beyond the lab.
Many production techniques involve the use of intense heat in a vacuum, and expensive ingredients like high-purity metals and explosive compressed gases.
Now a team of Australian scientists has detailed how they turned cheap everyday ingredients into graphene under normal air conditions.
They said the research, published today in the journal Nature Communications, may open up a new avenue for the low-cost synthesis of the highly sought-after material.
How soybean oil is turned into graphene
To produce the graphene, soybean oil is heated in a tube furnace for about 30 minutes where it decomposes into carbon building blocks on a foil made of nickel.
It is then rapidly cooled and diffuses on the surface of the foil into a thin rectangle of graphene film, about five centimetres by two centimetres and one nanometre thick (about 80,000 times thinner than a human hair).
Study co-author Dr Zhao Jun Han of the CSIRO said the process was faster and more energy-efficient than other methods.
"The other methods require a few hours for pumping a vacuum, growing a film, and cooling it down," he said.
Dr Zhao said the process could cut the cost of graphene production ten-fold.
"We believe that this process can significantly reduce the cost of producing graphene film," he said.
"It can then accommodate many applications that were previously limited by the high price of producing these films."
Step forward but can it be scaled up?
PHOTO: The film is strong yet flexible (Supplied: CSIRO)
Graphene expert Professor David Officer, from the University of Wollongong, said the use of soybean as a low-cost renewable source of carbon in the process was a step forward in graphene production and would garner significant interest worldwide.
"The potential's enormous," he said.
"[But] the question will be whether you can economically scale a method like this, where they've sealed it inside a furnace tube, to create and handle metre-sized films."
Professor Officer said making graphene films on a commercial scale was an issue scientists were still trying to overcome worldwide.
The biggest graphene film that can currently be made using the process is the size of a credit card.
Dr Zhao said the CSIRO was working towards applying the films to improve existing water filtration membranes and replace costly metals such as gold and platinum found in solar panels.
"We're also thinking of using it for some energy storage devices, like batteries and supercapacitors. The films could be able to conduct energy in a very efficient way," he said.
Many normal production techniques for graphene involve the use of intense heat in a vacuum, and expensive ingredients
But scientists say the new method reduces the cost of producing the material
The challenge of scaling production to a commercial level remains