College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

A Major Collaboration at the Microscopic Level

Santander gift to BU supports new academic exchange for graphene research

By Jeremy Schwab

Of all the known substances, one is stronger, more impermeable to gases, and better at conducting electricity than any other. And you have probably never heard of it. It is graphene, and it is the focus of intense scientific study by governments, educational institutions, and corporations. Researchers believe graphene can revolutionize everything from touchscreens to medical imaging devices to electrical circuits.

For all of its record-setting properties, graphene has a very simple structure. The nanomaterial consists of a single layer of carbon atoms bound very firmly in a hexagonal lattice. Graphene is the same substance that makes up graphite, just stripped down to an atom-thick plane using special adhesive tape.

Boston University and the National University of Singapore are collaborating to research graphene, a nanomaterial consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms bound in a hexagonal grid. Image by Creative Commons

In April, Boston University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) launched a research collaboration to probe the properties and potential uses of graphene. The partnership will bring Boston University researchers from the College of Arts & Sciences physics department and several departments of the College of Engineering (students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty) to the NUS Graphene Research Centre (GRC) in Singapore. There, they will have access to a state-of-the-art nanofabrication facility with a full range of cutting-edge technology such as atomic force microscopy, e-beam lithography, and other arcane-sounding processes. The BU physics department will also host faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and students from NUS to study at BU.

The opportunity to collaborate so closely with other researchers studying different aspects of the same material is a big reason for CAS Professor of Physics Antonio Castro Neto agreeing to serve as director of the GRC. “This program will allow students to have an international experience that many other universities can’t offer,” says Castro Neto. “Faculty and postdoctoral researchers will be able to do research at the frontier of material science.”

Castro Neto, a condensed matter theorist who studies electrical properties of various materials, was one of the first theorists to investigate graphene. He has a bold vision for the collaboration with NUS. “I would like this program to make BU a world leader in material research,” he says. “I think graphene is just the tip of the iceberg, that there are lots of materials like graphene waiting to be discovered.”

“I would like this program to make BU a world leader in material research. I think graphene is just the tip of the iceberg.” —Antonio Castro Neto

The academic exchange between BU and NUS is funded in part through a generous gift from Banco Santander through its Santander Universities Global Division, the latest funding in a fruitful partnership between CAS and the Spanish bank. Banco Santander has also funded Hispanic Voices, a series of cultural events organized by the Department of Romance Studies in collaboration with the College of Fine Arts and the international nonprofit Instituto Cervantes.

CAS Professor of Physics Claudio Rebbi, who helped launch the graphene research program, believes graphene could allow engineers to make computing devices that are even smaller and faster than the current stock of phones, sensors, or laptops. “I think it can contribute to generating less power-hungry, smaller devices of various kinds and may be a further step in the tech revolution,” says Rebbi, a particle physicist.

One of the potential uses of the material that has drawn the most attention is in touchscreen devices. Graphene would be a big improvement over indium tin oxide, the current material most used in touchscreens; graphene is less brittle, more transparent, and less expensive. Despite its strength, graphene is flexible. It can be stretched up to 20 percent beyond its length. And, because it is only one atom thick, it is very bendable and can be molded to almost any surface. This means it could be used not just for touchscreens but, hypothetically, for touch-sensitive fabrics or other touch-sensitive objects.

In other words, expect to hear a lot more about graphene in the years to come.