UOW in race to get super material graphene to market

UOW Innovation Campus Senior Research Fellow Dr Sanjeev Gambhir holds up a sheet of graphene created from carbon at the campus. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

UOW Innovation Campus Senior Research Fellow Dr Sanjeev Gambhir holds up a sheet of graphene created from carbon at the campus. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Research into the super material graphene has entered a new phase at the University of Wollongong, following a $25 million funding injection and a new patenting agreement.

Graphene - thin sheets of carbon extracted from graphite - is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and one million times thinner than paper.

Its myriad potential uses - as batteries that would charge in an instant, and radically improved data storage and solar cells - has sparked a kind of international "gold rush", and thousands of patenting applications.

Director of the UOW-headquartered ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) Professor Gordon Wallace said the race was on to get the material to market.

UOW Innovation Campus Senior Research Fellow Dr Sanjeev Gambhir and the university's Professor of Organic Chemistry, David Officer.

UOW Innovation Campus Senior Research Fellow Dr Sanjeev Gambhir and the university's Professor of Organic Chemistry, David Officer.

Although Australia had lagged in the past, ACES was well placed to make up ground, he said.

"Where we are not lagging is in the ability to pull together multi-disciplinary research teams that can really take this from start to finish," he said.

"The mining of the graphite, the chemical processing that enables the graphene to be integrated into ... devices - there's not many places under the one umbrella encompassing all those activities and skill.

"'We've got the skills and ability to generate a whole raft of intellectual property which can be globally competitive."

ACES's last round of Centre of Excellence funding concluded in June.

A launch event on Wednesday marked the beginning of a new seven-year funding arrangement worth $25 million, aimed at moving discoveries made during the first round of research into the design stage.

It came after ACES entered into a commercial patent licensing agreement with Australian-based start-up NanoCarbon, which plans to engineer graphene-based lithium ion batteries, water purification technologies and high barrier films.

The ACES-developed chemical process for producing graphene was awarded a United States Patent and Trademark Office patent in January.

Graphene achieved new prominence in 2010 when physicists from the University of Manchester cracked the question of how to isolate a single sheet of the silver-grey rock graphite - graphene - and won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The pair, Andrew Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, simply used sticky tape to peel off flakes invisible to the naked eye.

But creating large enough quantities of graphene remains a challenge, and the material can have variable properties, making it difficult to work with.

This is where the value lies in ACES's patented approach, which produces graphene with desirable properties, including traits that make it useful to the centre's new fabrication technologies, such as 3D printing.

"We've developed a chemical approach to give us exquisite control over those properties, even when the process is scaled up," Prof Wallace said.

"It would take a long time to build any practical device with the amount of [graphene] you would pull off with a piece of sticky tape.

"It was a beautiful experiment, worthy of the Nobel Prize, but a long way from the realities in terms of devices and structures."

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