Scientists from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, have developed a process that incorporates graphene oxide into polymers, which forms a range of enhanced plastics that are super-strong and super-versatile. The research adds to a growing field that finds more ways to toughen polymers.
Graphene is one hundred times stronger than steel. In fact, it’s one of the strongest materials tested by man. Because plastics and polymers are so plentiful in products, graphene-oxide-reinforced polymers could open a new range of light, yet strong, material possibilities, according to a William & Mary press release.
Jaeton Glover, a post-doctoral chemist at William & Mary who helped develop the process, says:
You can make a structure — an airplane wing or a component of a car — and it can give you the strength that you need for your specifications. But, because graphene-reinforced polymers are so light in comparison to metal, there is less material there, there is less weight. And then you start talking about fuel efficiency because you’re pushing less material through the air or on the road.
Glover was the lead author of a paper, titled “In Situ Reduction of Graphene Oxide in Polymers,” that describes how the process was developed. It was published in Macromolecules. Other authors include: Minzhen Cai, a graduate student in applied science; Kyle R. Overdeep, a graduate student in chemistry, now at Johns Hopkins; David E. Kranbuehl, emeritus professor of chemistry; and Hannes Schniepp, assistant professor of applied science.
Graphene oxide can be manipulated with varying thermal treatments to tap into its intrinsic semiconducting characteristics, Glover says. These properties can be exploited for opto-electronic applications, such as solar cells.
“You can have a pretty fine control on the opto-electronic properties of your material,” Glover says. “Once you do that, we’re getting to the point that we can think about designing new kinds of solar cells or printed microchips, and, well, who knows what else?”
Graphene-oxide also can be manipulated to change the color of the material it is in. Glover notes that such a property isn’t as important as strength and conductivity, but it could be useful for applications, such as windows and roof coatings, where screening of sunlight is desired.
Another benefit of the process is that it can save manufacturers money. Graphene is inexpensive, almost literally dirt cheap, Glover says. Also, incorporating graphene into polymers is relatively environmentally friendly: the process uses, simply, water. No toxic chemicals are required for making the polymer-graphene oxide composite, Glover says. The college has applied for a patent for its process.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.