If Kerala creates right graphene ecosystem, it can lead India in next-gen tech: Prof Rahul Nair

By Jishnu EN

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Rahul Nair; Kerala signing the MoU with several foreign universities | Photos: Twitter/RRNairLab1, rrnair.weebly.com

During the visit of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his team to the United Kingdom, Kerala signed a pact with several foreign universities to cooperate in the research of one of the most-anticipated chemical element graphene.

Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology (Digital University of Kerala) signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Manchester, Oxford, Edinburgh and Siegen universities.

Talking to mathrubhumi.com, Malayali professor Dr Rahul Nair from Manchester University,who was instrumental in preparing the MoU, elaborated on what the contract means to Kerala. The Alappuzha native is Professor of Materials Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at National Graphene Institute & ​School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, University of Manchester. He pursued PhD under Prof. Andre Geim, who shared the Nobel with a colleague for the discovery of graphene.

Graphene was termed a wonder material when its applications were understood. Does this excitement still remain?

Graphene is a wonder material not just because of its application alone but because it has exceptional electronic, mechanical and optical properties. For example, it is the thinnest but strongest material, even though it is only one atom thick, it absorbs 2.3% of light, defined by fundamental universal constants (a physical quantity that is universal in nature and has constant value in time). Thermal conductivity and electron mobility in graphene are record high. All these exceptional properties open many applications for graphene.

Graphene excitement remains, both in terms of fundamental science and in terms of applications, since graphene and other 2D materials continue to provide exciting results. One example is the latest finding on adding graphene to concrete to reduce the carbon footprint and potentially increase longevity. In terms of fundamental science, the science community primarily focuses on creating new materials by stacking graphene and other 2D materials in a layer-by-layer fashion with atomic precision.

Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre, Manchester University | Photo: Twitter/@UoMGraphene

The European Union a decade ago had earmarked a billion euro for graphene research. How has the research in Europe progressed? Could it take the product from labs to the market as envisaged?

The graphene flagship project enables collaboration between academics and industry, leading to next-generation technologies from interconnects for 5G data communication to wearable health monitors, and even flexible mobile screens. There are several products already in the market, for example, graphene-enhanced motorcycle helmets, graphene-based linear array sensors with tailor made CMOS read-out circuits, MediaDevil’s CB-01 earphones, graphene-rubber composite for thermal dissipation, air cooling unit, electrostatic discharge bags are a few of them. Many other products are being developed and at different stages of their development. We can expect to see them in the market soon.

Reports say quality problems and lack of established standard methods for classifying the materials are the major roadblock in use of graphene. Can you elaborate on this?

It is not simply a quality problem; graphene is not just a single material. These days the name graphene is used for all different 2D materials and different chemical derivatives of graphene. Identifying the right graphene material for each application is the key, and that needs some background research or collaboration with technical or academic experts. For example, the kind of graphene or related materials for electronic sensor applications are not suitable for polymer or rubber composites or water filtration applications. The quality of graphene-related materials needs to be optimised for each application, and you can not simply buy random graphene from the market and use it in your products. The collaboration between the graphene supplier and the product developer is the key to commercialisation.

In a recent report, it was stated that a concrete structure was strengthened when a small amount of graphene was added to it. Is that how this material is put to use in the market? Like, if you want to improve conduction of copper, add graphene to it?

Yes, this is one method (graphene composite materials) of using graphene and related materials for applications, and by this method, we can enhance the properties of the existing materials. Primarily, this method is used for polymers, rubber etc., to enhance the strength of polymers and rubber. This will allow the creation of more robust, lightweight material for several applications (e.g., aerospace). There are already several graphene-enhanced products available in the market (Graphene-enhanced running & training shoes, tyres, mats, graphene composites in vehicle parts (e.g., Ford is using graphene composites for enhancements in durability, sound resistance and weight reduction).

Representation image | Mathrubhumi

Adding graphene to copper or metals will be difficult, but it is possible to coat graphene and other 2D materials to metals to enhance their properties (e.g., anticorrosion). Graphene-based coating is also being developed to improve moisture and oxygen barrier properties of plastics to improve the shelf-life of several products. Developing graphene coating for membranes for water filtration and printed electronics are a few other examples.

What does the agreement signed by Kerala with a group of universities in Europe mean to Kerala?

The Kerala government has already established an Indian innovation Centre for Graphene in cooperation with Tata Steel and the ministry of electronics and information technology, Govt. of India. This centre is mainly for developing proof of concept or prototypes of different products. In addition, the Kerala government is planning to open a graphene park to commercialise graphene technology and its scale-up. The signed agreement with the Universities aims to provide support for developing this park and creating a graphene ecosystem in Kerala. This initiative could create new expertise and startups in Kerala and attract leading industries to Kerala for graphene commercialisation and product development.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan poses with university officials
after signing MoU. Rahul Nair is seen on extreme left | Photo: Twitter/@RRNairLab1

World is pumping a huge amount of money into graphene research. What can a small state like Kerala do in this?

It is difficult for Kerala to compete with other nations in basic research since it is costly and requires more human resources. However, if Kerala can create the right ecosystem, Kerala has the potential to be the next-generation technology developer for the rest of India and the world. Most of the technologies developed elsewhere need support from potential future markets and need further product developments for local needs. If Kerala can create graphene expertise and the right facilities sooner, this will help to attract already established graphene technology companies to start their business in Kerala and make products suitable for Indian markets.

Can you briefly describe the history of graphene research? What were the obstacles, how were they overcome and where do we stand now?

Graphene was first isolated in 2004 by two scientists Prof. Andre Geim and Prof. Konstantin Novoselov, at the University of Manchester using standard scotch tape. Even though this technique is not scalable, this technique provides the best quality graphene for fundamental research, and many researchers used this technique to uncover graphene's unusual properties. After a few years, many other methods of producing graphene on a larger scale were developed, such as liquid phase exfoliation of graphite, chemical modification and exfoliation, chemical vapour deposition etc. These versatile and scalable techniques open many possibilities for using graphene in different applications. Most of these techniques were fully developed in the labs during 2010 and took a few more years to scale up into a larger production capacity fully. Now, many companies can produce graphene or related materials in large quantities. From around 2015, many industries started exploring the use of graphene for their needs. With initiatives such as the graphene flagship, several proof-of-concept demonstrations, prototypes, and commercialised products are developed by today.

Representative image | Source: Canva

In the UK, we opened the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester in 2015 for performing fundamental graphene and 2D materials research, and in 2018, we opened the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre for developing industry lead higher technology readiness level projects.

The carbon nanotubes also carry several features of graphene. It is also dubbed as material of the future by many. What are the differences between these two?

Carbon nanotube is essentially a sheet of graphene rolled into a cylinder. The angle at which they are rolled, and their diameter, affect their properties. Both CNTs and graphene have many remarkable properties and have been suggested for a wide range of applications. However, in certain applications (e.g., composites), due to the planar structure of graphene, they outperform CNT in properties. Also, compared to CNT, graphene production and its incorporation in several existing devices (e.g., membranes for water filters, sensors, optoelectronic devices) is more straightforward.

About Prof Rahul

Rahul was born in Kuttemperoor, near Mannar in Alappuzha district. He studied up to masters in Kerala (DB Pampa College, Parumala, SB College Chaganacherry, and Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam).

During MSc, he got the opportunity to perform short projects related to nanomaterials at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai and Raman Research Institute in Bangalore. After MSc, he spent nearly two years at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore as a project assistant under Prof. Ajay Sood (current Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India) in a project related to carbon nanotubes.

In 2007, he got a PhD scholarship from British Council [UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI)] in the UK. He pursued PhD under Prof. Andre Geim. After completing PhD in 2010, he received several prestigious fellowships (Leverhulme fellowship, Royal Society Fellowship, etc.), and in 2016 he was appointed as a Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Manchester. Currently, his group is studying water and ion transport through graphene membranes and developing several applications of these membranes for water filtration, pharmaceutical and food and beverage applications.

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