Breaking Bad? Try Breaking Graphite

Using only their wits, a chunk of graphite and standard-issue cellophane tape, two U.K.-based scientists in 2004 discovered a material that could bring dramatic advances to fields as disparate as computing, energy and medicine -- if anybody can make enough of it to see if it really works.

Now, researchers at Penn State University think they've found a shortcut that may lead to production of the stuff in industrial amounts.

The substance in question is called graphene. It's made from graphite, a carbon crystal known most famously as the gray, slippery "lead" of pencils. The thinnest material ever made -- just one carbon atom thick -- graphene has novel properties that researchers hope will lead to twisty television and smartphone screens, super-fast conductors, targeted cancer treatments, sturdier tennis rackets and a zillion other things.

Europe is spending a fortune to develop graphene into an industrial super-ingredient, as Oliver Staley of Bloomberg News reported last week. Tech companies have begun stockpiling patent applications that include graphene, with Samsung off to a comfortable early lead. A week rarely goes by without science or business news media touting some new advance or potential use for graphene.

To make it, the trick is to peel away individual sheets from graphite, quickly and inexpensively, without ruining graphene's nifty, sought-after properties. That's where the Penn State breakthrough comes in. A research associate named Nina Kovtyukhova found that by adding a few drops of an acid to graphite powder and heating it up to 200 degrees Celsius, she could make the graphene sheets start to separate out. Molecules of the acid inserted themselves between the layers, forcing them open like air in the folds of an expanding accordion.

Good science often comes out of a good argument. The head of the Penn State research group, Tom Mallouk, thought his lab's previous work cleaving a different substance into its component sheets (if you must know, boron nitride) might help split graphite layers into graphene. He took the idea to Kovtyukhova, who fought him off for a month.

"I have a crazy idea every day," Mallouk said over the phone. "She has to filter them."

This one was easy for her to filter out, Mallouk said. Experiments dating back to the middle of the 19th century have shown the difficulty in breaking down graphite using the method he was suggesting, boron nitride be damned.

In the end, Kovtyukhova assented to a lopsided bet. If the experiment failed to make graphene from graphite, Mallouk said, he'd give her $100. If the experiment worked, she'd only have to give him $10 -- and she'd get her paper published in a high-end journal. The paper, by Kovtyukhova, Mallouk and five colleagues, appears in this week's issue of Nature Chemistry.

There's a long way to go before we'll line up to buy phones with flexible graphene screens or computers with graphene chips. There's a long way to go before Penn State or other researchers figure out how to shrink the amount of time their method takes, down from a week. "That's too long for a process, where you want to make bags of this stuff," Mallouk said.

Until companies can sell it by the bag, the $10 bill hanging in Mallouk's office makes him one of the early few who see graphene as a money-maker.

"I know the stuff is going to be something," Mallouk said, "but like all basic science, I just can't say what yet."

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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