Graphene is rapidly making its way into new advancements across several fields. Propelled by a graphene-focused initiative created by the European Commission, it's seeing new use in flexible antennae, helmet fabrication, and even methods to treat spinal injuries.

Graphene is a honeycomb-like lattice made of a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms. It is 100 times stronger than the strongest steel in the world and is almost transparent. While being the thinnest, lightest, and strongest known material, it offers flexibility and extremely high electrical and thermal conductivity.

 

Representation of a graphene lattice

 

Due to its unique properties, graphene has turned into a hot topic both in the industry and in academia. With these unique features, graphene has found applications in flexible and wearable electronics and antennas, pressure sensor design, flexible displays, optoelectronics and data communication systems, medical and bioengineering technologies, photovoltaics, and rechargeable batteries.

Led by Graphene Flagship, a European Commission initiative that aims to reduce the go-to-market time of graphene-based products, graphene is becoming ever more integral to scientific and technological advancement. Here's a glimpse at the future of graphene, accelerated by the initiative's lab-to-fab mindset.

 

Flexible Graphene Antenna

Recently, researchers from CNR-ISOF, the Italian partner of Graphene Flagship, have used graphene to design a flexible antenna for near-field communication (NFC) applications.

NFC is a wireless communication method which transmits a small amount of data over only a short range. Unlike many Wi-Fi communication protocols which wish to increase coverage range, the short range of NFC is quite desirable in that it makes communication more secure—at present, data hijacking over NFC is almost impossible. NFC is widely used in contactless payment systems, security cards, and identifying inventories, assets, people, and animals.

The new flexible antenna, which can tolerate thousands of bending cycles, offers a performance matching that of a conventional metallic antenna. The research team investigated different designs using several graphene derivatives. For the substrate, the researchers experimented with a number of materials such as PET, PVC, and Kapton. Moreover, they designed a wearable antenna based on a silk/graphene paper-like material.

 

Image courtesy of Graphene Flagship

 

To test the designed antennas, the researchers used an NFC reader app by STMicroelectronics, another partner of the Graphene Flagship.

According to Vincenzo Palermo, Graphene Flagship leader of the Polymer Composites research area, the modern technology is following the trend of replacing metals with lighter, cheaper, and better recyclable materials. And the graphene-based antennas are a step forward in achieving this goal.

The technology could have a great impact on the flexible electronics and communication technologies. For example, we can expect graphene-based wearable NFC tags interacting with the smartphones and other devices.

 

Graphine-Coated Motorcycle Helmet

Graphene is the world’s strongest material so it isn't surprising to see products that use graphene to offer better protection against bodily harm. Since graphene is so thin and rather expensive, only a coating of the graphene flakes are sprayed onto the helmet's outer structure. The graphene coating not only spreads the force of impact across a wider area and improves the strength of the helmet, but also dissipate heat more efficiently and increases rider comfort.

Fortunately, the stage of adding a graphene coating can be easily integrated into the existing production line of commercial helmets.

The technology is the result of the collaboration between Italian Momodesign and the Italian Institute of Technology’s Graphene Labs division. The IIT’s Graphene Labs is a partner of Graphene Flagship.

 

The graphene helmet designed by Momodesign and IIT’s Graphene Labs. Image courtesy of Graphene Flagship.

 

To further improve the safety of the wearer, the research team is exploring methods of adding graphene to the inner parts of the helmet.

 

Graphene in Biomedical Applications

Early this year, researchers at the University of Trieste and the Cambridge Graphene Centre—funded in part by Graphene Flagship—explored the biomedical applications of graphene. They directly interfaced untreated graphene with neurons. This was a big stride and scientists hope that, in the future, this graphene interface can make treatment of neurological disorders—such as Parkinson's disease—possible. Other potential applications of the technology include treating paralysis and allowing amputees to control prosthetic robotic limbs.

Before the graphene-based electrodes, researchers had experimented with materials such as tungsten and silicon. However, with these materials, the body forms a scattering tissue around the electrode which, consequently, makes electrical signals unclear. Moreover, these electrodes are stiff and likely to get disconnected over time. On the contrary, the graphene-based electrodes are flexible and do not affect cellular activities.

More recently, n another study at Rice University, researchers employed graphene along with a widely used polymer, polyethylene glycol, to bridge the gap in damaged nerve cells

 

Representation of carbon nanotubes being split into the graphene nanoribbons used for the neuron growth process. Image courtesy of the Tour Group.

 

The research team, led by Professor James Tour, developed ribbons of graphene which are highly conductive and soluble in water. As a result, the ribbons can connect to damaged nerve cells and form a path for the electrical signals of the nerve system. The water solubility of these ribbons is attributed to the polyethylene glycol.

Using these graphene ribbons, researchers successfully bridged the gap in the spinal cord of a rat. Since the nerve cells tend to rapidly grow over the developed material within 24 hours, the rat was able to transmit sensory and motor signals over its damaged nerve cells.

The research still has a long way to go; however, it has huge implications and can pave the way for some incredible medical advancements.

 

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