Graphite, most commonly found in pencils, is something that at first may appear uninteresting to us. It’s grey, brittle and difficult to write with at times. In 2004 however, two scientists, who were curious about the layered properties of graphite (the property that makes it possible to write with), sought to explore the limits of its thinness and how its properties change with scale. Using nothing but sticky tape, they repeatedly peeled off layer by layer until they achieved a layer only one atom thick. This was the first and most familiar of the 2D nanomaterials, known as graphene.
The significance of this material however lies not in its extreme thinness, but in the surprisingly different properties it displays compared to its 3D equivalent. It is almost completely transparent, over 300 times stronger than steel and is far more electrically conductive than graphite. This has led to a vibrant field of research in 2D materials with potential applications in energy storage, sensors, energy harvesting and ICT.
In Trinity, the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) has been at the forefront of this field developing new techniques of production, as well as adding to the collection of 2D materials created worldwide. Professor Valeria Nicolosi is one of the leading researchers in 2D materials both in CRANN and AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) in University College Cork. In a recent interview with Horizon Magazine, she compares the unique properties of each 2D material to a “superpower that is very distinctive and different from the other one”, but it is “impossible to find one material to have all the properties you need”. One could, therefore, combine the “superpowers” of each nanomaterial into a device with optimised performance and minimal flaws.
Nicolosi has recently embarked on a new research project named “3D2DPrint”, looking to incorporate the recent advances of 2D material printing into state-of-the-art batteries and supercapacitors. This capitalises on recent advances in printed electronic components from Trinity’s Professor Jonathan Coleman 3D2DPrint has received 2.5 million euro of funding from the European Research Council and is set to conclude in October 2021.
Currently, batteries have high energy densities, but long charge/discharge times. On the other hand, supercapacitors, such as those in camera flashes, have fast charge/discharge times and low energy densities. The aim of this project is to combine the qualities of each device into something with fast charging times, and high energy capacity. This is great for consumer electronics where batteries could recharge in minutes and last for days, but the real benefits will be seen in larger scale technologies, where battery price and performance have been limiting factors on development. A good example is the recent rise in the electric vehicle market. Other novel uses of these batteries include the ability to embed them in clothing or plastic casings for additional energy storage, as well as implants to power medical devices in the body.
Cost and scalability are also considerations in bringing technology beyond the lab and into industry. Nicolosi has even managed to modify an office inkjet printer to print batteries, indicating that this has the potential to be a very ubiquitous technology.
The project is still in its early stages, and we can only anticipate what the outcome of this work will be. We do know, however, that Nicolosi has been very successful in securing funding in recent years and has delivered very promising results in her previous projects. Four years is a very long time in the world of science, so hopefully we will see the promises of this work realised in the near future in our own personal electronics.