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Modifying graphene to improve composite materials performance

NPL helps industry understand how changing graphene chemistry affects properties in end products

  • Scientists have successfully used graphene to improve the performance of composites
  • Using state-of-the-art measurement to characterise the surface chemistry on the nanoscale
  • The research benefits ongoing development of products containing few-layer graphene

London March 2020 – Scientists from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), and Versarien Plc have successfully used graphene to improve the performance of composite materials and have determined how the chemical functionalisation of graphene has an effect via nanoscale imaging of the surface chemistry.

Graphene, a highly desirable material for a variety of applications; in the case of nanocomposites, can be functionalised and added as a nanofiller to alter the ultimate product properties, such as tensile strength. Often the material properties of the functionalised graphene and the location of any chemical species are not known. Consequently, it is not necessarily understood why improvements in product performance are achieved, which hinders the rate of product development.

Through the InnovateUK funded Analysis for Innovators programme, Versarien Plc, a company developing graphene products to help manufacturers improve their products’ functionality, approached NPL. Versarien wanted to explore how modifying their material, trademarked Nanene, could change how the flakes are dispersed in the polymers, and in turn, how this would change the polymer’s properties. Nanene is a graphitic powder containing few-layer graphene (FLG) flakes. It is important for customers to know whether improved dispersion of Nanene in composites will bring added benefits to products made from these enhanced polymers.

NPL applied a wide range of state-of-the-art measurement techniques to characterise the flakes and composites. One particularly novel aspect of the project involved tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (TERS) to provide nanoscale resolution of the graphene sample’s structural makeup and view defects within the flakes themselves.

Dr Andrew Pollard, Science Area Leader at NPL, said: “Understanding how the fundamental material properties of commercially-available powders containing few-layer graphene affect the final performance of real-world products, is crucial if these new and innovative applications are to come to market. It is exciting to see how advanced techniques measuring nanoscale properties can reveal the reasons for changes in the macroscale properties of composites.”

NPL’s research, in collaboration with the GEIC at the University of Manchester, the University of Liverpool and the University of Surrey, enabled Versarien to understand the materials at a structural and chemical level. The knowledge and data from this collaborative research benefits ongoing product development, helps provide insight and assurances to new and existing customers.

Versarien are carrying out further research to investigate whether the improved dispersion could yet be harnessed beneficially by making other changes to the chemistry of the graphene flakes.

Dr Stephen Hodge, Head of Research at Versarien, said: “The project gave us access to a very wide range of cutting-edge techniques that are simply not available outside of measurement labs. Particularly in the case of TERS, it was not just the instruments, but the ability to adapt them to our specific problem, which requires extremely high levels of expertise. That we could bring all of these together in one place brought huge benefit to understanding the structure of our product.”

Robin Wilson, Head of Manufacturing & Materials of InnovateUK, said: “The outcome of this A4I (InnovateUK) funded project is an excellent example of how metrology enables innovation.  It has had a far-reaching impact, as it has not only helped a UK company to fine tune their product development but has also resulted in a scientific publication that adds to the understanding of using graphene within the composite community.”

This work has been published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, entitled “Determining the Level and Location of Functional Groups on Few-Layer Graphene and Their Effect on the Mechanical Properties of Nanocomposites” and is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b22144.

Dr Andrew Pollard recently spoke to Chemistry and Industry magazine about this work, read the full article here.

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