It has been hailed as a wonder material set to revolutionise everyday life, but graphene has always been considered too expensive for mass production – until now.

Scientists at Glasgow University have made a breakthrough discovery, allowing graphene to be produced one hundred times more cheaply than before, opening it up to an array of new applications.

First isolated in 2004, the miracle material can be used in almost anything from bendable mobile phone screens to prosthetic skin able to provide sensation.

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Graphene is the world’s thinnest material at just a single atom thick, or one-million times thinner than a human hair, but is 200 times stronger than steel and conducts heat and electricity better than copper.

Glasgow University’s research has discovered a way to produce large sheets of graphene with the same type of cheap copper used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries found in household appliances.

Dr Ravinder Dahiya, who led the university team working on the research, said: “The commercially-available copper we used in our process retails for around one dollar per square metre, compared to around $115 for a similar amount of the copper currently used in graphene production.

“This more expensive form of copper often required preparation before it can be used, adding further to the cost of the process.

“Our process produces high-quality graphene at low cost, taking us one step closer to creating affordable new electronic devices with a wide range of applications, from the smart cities of the future to mobile healthcare.”

Graphene is usually produced by a process known as chemical vapour deposition, or CVD, which turns gaseous reactants into a film of graphene on a special surface known as a substrate.

The research team at Glasgow used a similar process, but used commercially-available copper foils, often used as the negative electrodes in lithium-ion batteries, as a surface on which to create high-quality graphene.

 

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Researchers also observed the surface of the copper used provided an excellent bed for the graphene to form upon.

The university’s technique of producing graphene not only reduced the cost but offered a stark improvement in the electrical and optical performance of the material, compared to the older, more expensive, process.

Dr Dahiya said: “We have not changed the process, we have changed the ingredients. It is about manufacturing at a low cost, so consumers are able benefit. It’s a very exciting discovery and we’re keen to continue our research."

He added: “Much of my own research is in the field of synthetic skin. Graphene could help provide an ultraflexible, conductive surface which could provide people with prosthetics capable of providing sensation in a way that is impossible for even the most advanced prosthetics today."

As well as medical uses, graphene should allow huge advances in the fields of electronics, energy, sensors and membranes.

One practical application of the material could be to provide clean drinking water in developing countries, as graphene is capable of creating a perfect barrier between liquids and gases. The membrane would be capable of separating clean water from impurities in the liquid.

The research was conducted by the University of Glasgow in partnership with scientists at Bilkent University in Turkey and was published in the journal Scientific Reports.