Watch out, graphene! A new wonder material promises big things

8 May 2018

Image: Tschub/Shutterstock

Graphene is considered the go-to futuristic material, but scientists have just spawned a new creation that could be game-changing for solar fuel generation.

First harnessed in 2004, the atom-thin material graphene has been heralded as the game-changing material capable of solving a number of issues, from water filtration to truly flexible wearables.

However, 14 years later, the technology has largely remained in the lab as teams attempt to find ways to make it manufactural on a large scale.

In that time, others have searched for other possible wonder materials, and a team led by Rice University has just unveiled one: hematene.

More efficient

Extracted from common iron ire, hematene measures slightly larger than graphene at three atoms in thickness, but has shown itself to be an efficient photocatalyst, especially for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

It could also serve as an ultra-thin magnetic material for spintronic-based devices. This would make it ideal for use as a solar fuel generator, a technology that is increasing in popularity among researchers.

In a paper published to Nature Nanotechnology, the team said it worked with international researchers to exfoliate hematene from naturally occuring hematite.

While already known to have photocatalytic properties, hematite was only able to generate short-lived charges after absorbing sunlight. Hematene photocatalysis, meanwhile, is more efficient because photons generate negative and positive charges within a few atoms of the surface.

By pairing the new material with titanium dioxide nanotube arrays, which provide an easy pathway for electrons to leave the hematene, the scientists found that they could allow more visible light to be absorbed.

Stronger than graphene

Unlike graphene, which is a 2D form, hematene is held together by 3D bonding, making it both stronger and more capable for use in solar fuel production.

“2D magnetism is becoming a very exciting field with recent advances in synthesising such materials, but the synthesis techniques are complex and the materials’ stability is limited,” said Pulickel Ajayan of the research team.

“Here, we have a simple, scalable method, and the hematene structure should be environmentally stable.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic