Editorial Features

The Difficult Promises of Graphene Nanotechnology

Ugo Sassi

Ugo Sassi

Research Engineer & Lab Manager, Nokia Bell Labs – Cambridge, UK

Nanotechnology is the main field of my research at Nokia Bell Labs in Cambridge. In brief, I develop nanomaterials and integrate them on conventional platforms, such as silicon, plastics, and so on, for future commercial applications. Nano-materials are objects having at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm), where 1 nm is one billionth of a meter. This means that I work with extremely tiny systems, and at this scale, the laws of physics are completely different from those of our everyday life. Novel applications are enabled by exploiting the emerging phenomena, which are well-described by quantum mechanics.

One of the nano-materials I am working with is graphene. The thickness of this material is the smallest ever measured. Indeed, graphene is as thick as a single atom of carbon, which is even less than 1 nm (roughly 0.3 nm). Because of its thickness and due to the atom’s arrangement, several quantum effects can be exploited, making graphene a unique material with extraordinary properties for novel applications.

For instance, graphene allows the flow of an electric current at previously unrecorded speeds, enabling faster electronics. Besides the fast transport of electrons, graphene also shows an extremely-high thermal conduction of heat. Furthermore, from the mechanical point of view, it is one of the strongest materials ever discovered, while it is also very flexible, meaning that it can be stretched, bent, and folded without losing its properties. Creating graphene and exploiting it for everyday applications is one of the targets of my research.

IN-FOCUS Graphene Nanotechnology Nokia Bell Labs Ugo Sassi - Figure Image 300x400
Under strictly controlled conditions, extraordinary properties arise from pure graphene

Something often not mentioned about graphene is that the extraordinary properties described above can only be achieved in an ideal world – where graphene is ‘perfect’, made of carbon atoms only, arranged exactly as described in its theoretical structure, and isolated from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the material that is available today, which we still call ‘graphene’, is often far from the ‘perfect’ graphene. Therefore, only substandard properties are achieved in the labs, making it very challenging to reach a specific target application.

The good news is that after the first demonstration of quantum phenomena in graphene in 2004, which led to the Nobel Prize in Physics, research has resulted in huge improvements from the material point of view. Graphene defects have been drastically reduced over the last few years, as have the level of impurities (atoms that are not carbon). At a very small scale, and under some particular conditions, properties close to the ‘perfect’ case have been demonstrated in graphene and now research is moving towards scaling-up this technology to something that is more compatible with industry.

Collaborating with universities, research institutes, and other R&D companies allows us at Nokia Bell Labs to gain access to state-of-the-art graphene technology, meaning that we can test the best material available today and assess whether it is good enough to satisfy our target requirements. By keeping an eye on the main scientific publications around graphene, it is often easy to find the best academics to work with. Indeed, once somebody discovers or claims the achievement of a graphene film with improved quality, we are in a good position to directly get in touch with the group and set up a collaboration.

For example, we can characterise their materials with our in-house equipment, evaluate the particular performance modes of interest, provide important feedback for the research group, and even publish our joint research work. In this regard, I believe that platforms such as IN-PART can play an important role in connecting different research groups together. This is highly beneficial because it enables industry to get in touch with a research team as soon as the latter achieves some results that are of interest to the company, without waiting for the research team to publish the work in a journal (which usually happens several months after the discovery).

Another way in which we collaborate with external partners is by setting up a specific collaboration at the very beginning of a research project and working together to reach agreed targets. In this case, identifying the right collaborator that is able to help is not trivial. Again, I believe that in this case, online platforms such as IN-PART can offer important help to nanotechnology businesses and other industries.

IN-FOCUS Graphene Nanotechnology Nokia Bell Labs Ugo Sassi - Footer Image-v1

This article is part of IN-FOCUS: Nanotechnology. Follow the links to other articles in this series:

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed. IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2017

Image credits:

Header Image – UCL Mathematical and Physical Science / Flickr (CC by-SA 2.0)
Figure image – Hal Gatewood / Unslpash (CC0)

Footer – Santosh Gawde / Flickr (CC by-SA 2.0)

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