Graphene is the thinnest material in the world, with unusual properties which make it extremely versatile. JIt is an excellent conductor, it can be hard as a diamond, 200 times stronger than steel and flexible like rubber.

Poles may feel particular fondness for graphene, even though many do not quite know what it is, because of the mainstream media references to the “Polish graphene”, or politicians seeking fame over the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology. Whereas the truth is that graphene's qualities were discovered in England, specifically in Manchester, by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, somewhat accidentally, during one of the periodic “Friday night experiments” – a tradition of Manchester Metropolitan University. During a simple experiment with a lump of coal and sticky tape, the two scientists noticed that graphene can be divided into flakes about one atom thick. This discovery was first described in 2003, but only during the following year the interest in this material grew to a global scale. In 2010, two scientists received a Nobel Prize for "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene".

Manchester, now called the Graphene City is also the place where the MMU scientists decided to construct a 3D printer and the consumables which would enable printing of objects with graphene. It is a project which involves many people from various different backgrounds. One of them describes their participation in the project: „My interest in developing a 3D printer and process for 3D printing graphene comes from producing interactive tactile surfaces and environments for robotic sculptures for exhibitions in museums, galleries, and biennials.

Graphene is not a friendly material. The complication with graphene 3D printing is that the material is not easy to prepare in a form which is suitable for use. The initial material has the consistency of a powder and requires processing before placing it in usable polymers. What is also tricky is the process of stacking and rapid curing of the subsequent layers of the pre-processed polymers without the need for sintering of every layer separately in an oven. The current limitations of the graphene technology result from the lack of a suitable carrier which graphene could be combined with, so that it could become a truly standard material production the 21st century.

Nonetheless, the last few years some significant progress has been made in the field of graphene 3D printing. The Graphene 3D Lab company, formed in 2014, has already managed to consolidate its position and present their graphene battery printing technology. They also released a filament with graphene, tested and described earlier in CD3D. The company plans to develop its own 3D printer which would allow the combination of different materials in a single print.

It is likely to become one of key materials in functional 3D printing”, one of the company's founders, Elena Poliakowa, explains. “Graphene enhanced polymers are great conductors of electricity. We will need many different materials to print optical elements, energy storage devices, transistors, etc. Graphene composites can be adapted for many of these elements. Needless to say, speed and accuracy of deposition techniques must be improved. The next generation of hardware that can print with dozens of materials must be created.

New ideas for the use of graphene spring up regularly in various parts of the world. Last month, one of the MMU's PhD students, Daryl McManus, won the competition for the best proposal for the application of graphene in business, for the idea of the inks based on graphene, which could be used to print electronics. He managed to develop an accurate and ecological printing method. The money from the prize will go towards setting up his company, which will deal with the development of the graphene technology.

Graphene is still an experiment and a prototype but scientists predict that it should play a crucial role in the development of various technologies. We need yet to be patient, there is still a need to fully explore and understand the nature of graphene. Meanwhile, such events as the creation of the National Graphene Institute suggest that maybe our patience will not be tested long.

Bartosz Kuczyński
Translator, lecturer and creator of didactic games in company Luderis. Increased a potential of 3D printers in 2012.

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