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A printer and some ice make 3D objects out of graphene

07 March 2016

A research team used a modified 3D printer and frozen water to create lattice-shaped cubes and a three-dimensional truss with overhangs using graphene oxide.

Graphene is incredibly light, so it has no trouble resting on top of this cotton-like material (Credit: University of Buffalo)

The material, discovered in 2004, is 1 million times thinner than a human hair, 300 times stronger than steel, and it’s the best known conductor of heat and electricity. So, it’s easy to imagine the potential applications.

Recently, scientists poured graphene oxide suspension, a gel-like form of the material, into freezing moulds to create 3D objects. The process works, but only with simple structures that have limited commercial applications.

Another option is to use a 3D printer. In this scenario, scientists typically mix graphene with a polymer or other thickening agent. This helps keep the structure from falling apart. Yet when the polymer is removed via thermal process, it damages the delicate structure.

The structures could be an important step toward making graphene commercially viable in electronics, medical diagnostic devices, and other industries.

“Graphene is notoriously difficult to manipulate, but the structures we built show that it’s possible to control its shape in three-dimensional forms,” says Chi Zhou, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University at Buffalo and a corresponding author of the study.

How they did it

In their experiments, the researchers mixed the graphene oxide with water. They then printed the lattice framework on a surface of -25°C. The graphene is sandwiched between the layers of frozen ice, which act as a structural support.

After the process is completed, the lattice is dipped in liquid nitrogen, which helps form even stronger hydrogen bonds. The lattice is then placed in a freeze dryer, where the ice is changed into gas and removed. The end result is a complex, three-dimensional structure made of graphene aerogel that retains its shape at room temperature.

“By keeping the graphene in a cold environment, we were able to ensure that it retained the shape we designed. This is an important step toward making graphene a commercially viable material,” says Dong Lin, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering at Kansas State University and the study’s other corresponding author.

The researchers plan to build on their findings by investigating how to create aerogel structures formed of multiple materials.

This research can be found in the journal Small.

Video courtesy of University of Buffalo.

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