An inkjet solution for graphene manufacturing

A team from Nottingham University in the UK has published a paper that shows it is possible to jet inks containing tiny flakes of 2D materials such as graphene, and to build up and mesh together the different layers of these complex, customised structures.

This shows a representative arrangement of graphene flakes in ink-jet printed graphene between two contacts (green). Colour gradient corresponds to variation of flake potentials.

This sort of theoretical work has the potential to be one of the building blocks that will ultimately lead to 3D printers that are able to produce a new generation of electronic devices with useful properties, such as an ability to convert light into electricity. 

Graphene, which was first created in 2004, has many unique properties including being stronger than steel, highly flexible and the best conductor of electricity ever made. But two-dimensional materials like Graphene are challenging to work with. It’s usually made by sequentially exfoliating a single layer of carbon atoms – arranged in a flat sheet – which are then used to produce bespoke structures. But it’s difficult to combine multiple layers together and usually requires painstaking deposition of the layers one at a time by hand – not exactly a robust manufacturing process.

So this new study offers a way to create scalable manufacturing techniques for working with Graphene by using 3D printing, with inks in which tiny flakes of graphene (a few billionths of a metre across) are suspended. By combining advanced manufacturing techniques to make devices, along with sophisticated ways of measuring their properties and quantum wave modelling, the team worked out exactly how inkjet‐printed graphene can successfully replace single layer graphene as a contact material for 2D metal semiconductors.

One of the authors, Dr Lyudmila Turyanska from the Centre for Additive Manufacturing, explained, “While 2D layers and devices have been 3D printed before, this is the first time anyone has identified how electrons move through them and demonstrated potential uses for the combined, printed layers. Our results could lead to diverse applications for inkjet‐printed graphene‐polymer composites and a range of other 2D materials. The findings could be employed to make a new generation of functional optoelectronic devices; for example, large and efficient solar cells; wearable, flexible electronics that are powered by sunlight or the motion of the wearer; perhaps even printed computers.”

The study, ‘Inter‐Flake Quantum Transport of Electrons and Holes in Inkjet‐Printed Graphene Devices’, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Functional Materials. It was carried out by engineers at the Centre for Additive Manufacturing working with physicists at the School of Physics and Astronomy, all of whom shared a common interest in quantum technologies. The researchers were able to use quantum mechanical modelling to understand how electrons move through the 2D material layers.

Another of the paper’s authors, Professor Mark Fromhold, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, explained: “By linking together fundamental concepts in quantum physics with state-of-the art-engineering, we have shown how complex devices for controlling electricity and light can be made by printing layers of material that are just a few atoms thick but centimetres across.”

He continued: “According to the laws of quantum mechanics, in which the electrons act as waves rather than particles, we found electrons in 2D materials travel along complex trajectories between multiple flakes. It appears as if the electrons hop from one flake to another like a frog hopping between overlapping lily pads on the surface of a pond.”

The next steps for this research are to better control the deposition of the flakes by using polymers to influence the way they arrange and align and trying different inks with a range of flake sizes. The researchers also hope to develop more sophisticated computer simulations of the materials and the way they work together, developing ways of mass-manufacturing they devices they prototype.

This work was funded through the £5.85m EPSRC-funded Programme Grant for research into additive manufacturing. You can find further details on this research from the Centre for Additive Manufacturing at nottingham.ac.uk


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