Physicists accidentally discover explosive way to make graphene

26 Jan 2017

Inventor Chris Sorensen with samples of graphene made using his method. Image: Kansas State University

Using a car’s spark plug and some explosive gases, a team of physicists has managed to find a simple, cheap and explosive way to produce large quantities of graphene.

It seems that on a monthly basis, there is a new development in the speed and quality of graphene production, be it with copper substrates, or using it to create the strongest material known to humankind.

Yet despite these regular developments, little progress has been made in producing the so-called wonder material faster and cheaper to the point that it can be mass-produced.

However, the latest development from Kansas State University (KSU) is certainly taking graphene to a new, explosive level of development.

Unlike current production methods that rely on large industrial-scale equipment, the KSU team led by Prof Chris Sorensen has found an ingenious way to create graphene in a small 17-litre container.

Once the chamber is filled with a combination of oxygen and either acetylene or ethylene gas, a spark plug from any type of vehicle is used to create a contained explosion within the chamber.

It is then just a matter of collecting the graphene that forms afterward, which is created by the detonation of carbon-containing material.

The researchers first stumbled on this production method when they were developing and patenting carbon soot aerosol gels.

By following the same process of detonating explosive gases in the aluminium chamber, Sorensen and his team found that the resulting soot looked like “black angel food cake”.

This resulting soot may have looked like black angel food cake, but it was actually clumps of graphene, with Sorensen admitting that they got lucky.

‘All it takes is a single spark’

The simplicity of production and low cost makes it a real candidate for increasing its scale for production purposes because typical ‘cooking’ processes that use mineral graphite and chemicals result in a far lengthier process.

This cooking method is also far more energy intensive, potentially dangerous and lower yielding than could be deemed practical for a manufacturer to take on.

Sorensen said: “What might be the best property of all is that the energy required to make a gram of graphene through our process is much less than other processes, because all it takes is a single spark.”

Unsurprisingly, Sorensen and the rest of his KSU research team have patented the discovery, and will now spend the coming months improving the quality and yield of graphene, but also finding a way to create the material in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic