Manchester emerges as graphene research centre

The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre will open in 2017, having received half of its £60 million funding from Abu Dhabi’s renewables company Masdar.

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LONDON // Manchester may be Europe’s City of Science for 2016, but its partnership with the UAE is key in developing the northern English city into the “Silicon Valley” of graphene.

The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – another new building in Manchester University's graphene ecosystems – will open in 2017, having received half of its £60 million (Dh311.8m) funding from Abu Dhabi's renewables company Masdar.

There are close ties between the NGI and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, with academics and experts frequently visiting the two campuses to discuss developments and ideas.

The two institutions will focus their joint graphene research on industrial applications for the energy, aerospace and defence sectors.

Meanwhile, the science does not stand still. Just last month, a new one atom-thick flat material that could upstage the wonder material graphene and advance digital technology was discovered by physicists using state-of-the-art theoretical computations at the University of Kentucky and working in collaboration with scientists from Daimler in Germany and the Institute for Electronic Structure and Laser (IESL) in Greece.

Reported in Physical Review B, the new material is made up of silicon, boron and nitrogen –all light, inexpensive and abundant elements – and is extre­mely stable, a property many other graphene alternatives lack.

“We used simulations to see if the bonds would break or disintegrate – it didn’t happen,” says Madhu Menon, a physicist in the UK Centre for Computational Sciences. “We heated the material up to 1,000°C and it still didn’t break.”

In his theoretical computations, Mr Menon, Ernst Richter from Daimler and Antonis Andriotis from IESL, have demonstrated that by combining the three elements, it is possible to obtain a one atom-thick, truly 2D material with properties that can be fine-tuned to suit various applications beyond what is possible with graphene.

“We are very anxious for this to be made in the lab,” Mr Menon says. “The ultimate test of any theory is experimental verification, so the sooner the better.”

The presence of silicon also offers the exciting possibility of seamless integration with the current silicon-based technology, allowing the industry to slowly move away from silicon instead of eliminating it completely, all at once.

“We know that silicon-based technology is reaching its limit because we are putting more and more components together and making electronic processors more and more compact,” Mr Menon said. “But we know that this cannot go on indefinitely; we need smarter materials.”

Other graphene-like materials have been proposed but lack the strengths of the material discovered by Mr Menon and his team. Silicene, for example, does not have a flat surface and eventually forms a 3D surface.

Other theoretical materials are highly unstable, some only for a few hours.

Of course, the main advantage graphene has over such materials today is the fact that it is already being manufactured.

Among British universities also researching graphene uses, the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute, recently revealed how its scientists had created “smart wallpaper”, capable of generating electricity from heat and light.

The Surrey team overcame graphene’s poor light absorption qualities by developing a technique called nanotexturing, which involved growing graphene on a textured metal surface.

In Cambridge, professor Andrea Ferrari heads a £25m research centre, with industrial partners including Nokia and Philips.

Last month, many British universities came together to showcase graphene’s potential for consumer electronics at the first Graphene Pavilion at Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona.

James Baker, the business director of the NGI, describes the rival graphene research as “complementary rather than competing”.

“We are all collaborating, but it can cause confusion,” he says.

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