Image: Peking University/Nature Nanotechnology
The adaptation of chemical vapor deposition (CVD) production of graphene so that it’s compatible with roll-to-roll processing is transforming graphene manufacturing. That effort is being led by companies like Graphene Frontiers, based in Philadelphia.
However, the production of single-crystal graphene on copper foils in a CVD process remains a fairly time consuming procedure. Fabrication of centimeter-size single crystals of graphene still takes as much as a day.
Now researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Peking University have developed a technique that accelerates the process so that the growth happens at 60 micrometers per second—far faster than the typical 0.4 µm per second. The key to this 150-fold speed increase was adding a little oxygen directly to the copper foils.
In the research, which is described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the China-based researchers placed an oxide substrate 15 micrometers below the copper foil. The result: a continuous supply of oxygen that lowers the energy barrier to the decomposition of the carbon feedstock, thereby increasing the graphene growth rate.
The expectations were that the oxide substrate would release the oxygen at the high temperatures inside the CVD surface (over 800 degrees Celsius). The researchers confirmed this through the use of electron spectroscopy. While the measurements indicated that oxygen was indeed being released, the amount was still fairly minimal. Nevertheless, this minuscule amount of oxygen proved sufficient for their purposes because the very small space between the oxide substrate and the copper foil created a trapping effect that multiplied the effect of the oxygen.
In their experiments, the researchers were able to successfully produce single-crystal graphene materials as large as 0.3 millimeter in just five seconds. That, according to the researchers, is more than two orders of magnitude faster than other methods in which graphene is grown on copper foils.
The researchers believe that this ultrafast synthesis of graphene makes possible a new era of scalable production of high-quality, single-crystal graphene films by combining this process with roll-to-roll methods.
Counterintuitively, speeding up the process of producing single-crystal graphene films may not automatically lead to wider adoption of graphene in various devices. Just a few years ago, graphene production was stuck at around a 25-percent utilization rate, and there is no reason to believe that demand has increased enough to have dramatically changed those figures. (Graphene producers will tell you that if demand for CVD-produced graphene suddenly spiked, volume could be doubled nearly overnight.)
Nonetheless, speed in manufacturing is always an attractive option for any product. It just might not offer a change to the graphene landscape as much as a few “killer apps” might.