November 21, 2017

VSU Students Discover New Method of Producing ‘Wonder Material’ Graphene

Physical chemistry students at Valdosta State University have worked with graphene since August and experienced the full spectrum of scientific research, from the preliminary experiments to the patent writing process.

VALDOSTA — Physical chemistry students at Valdosta State University are working to develop a new and more efficient method of producing graphene, a material that has the potential to revolutionize everything from electronics to medicine.

The students expect to file a patent by the end of the Fall 2017 semester. They have researched and experimented with graphene since August.

“We’re taking a different approach than what people have done in the past,” said Kory Burns, the lead student researcher for the project. He is a chemistry major from Atlanta, Georgia, and expects to graduate in December.

“People have tried to synthesize graphene with almost the exact same procedure that we’ve been doing, but we’re applying some twists to it to see if we can make the process easier and more efficient.”

Graphene is a layer of carbon that is one atom thick and arranged in a honeycomb pattern. Highly elastic and almost completely transparent, it is found in graphite, the black material that makes up pencil lead. While graphite is soft and falls apart in layers quite easily, the layers of graphene within graphite are ultra strong and resilient.

First discovered in 2004, graphene has been described as a “miracle material” and “the material of tomorrow” because of its properties. It is 100,000 times thinner than a human hair and possesses the tensile strength to hold up an elephant. It is believed to be the strongest material yet discovered — harder than a diamond and 200 times stronger than steel. It is also the best conductor of heat and electricity known to humans.

“Graphene is a fairly new topic for scientists,” said Ashley Pitts, an international student from Belize and one of the student researchers. She is a chemistry major and expects to graduate in December. “Due to its structure, it provides a lot of great properties that can be utilized in various aspects of our everyday life, ranging from healthcare to technology. With the use of graphene, many of our day-to-day activities can be improved for the greater good of all.”

Scientists are eyeing graphene as a way to make electronic devices faster and significantly more powerful, versatile, and energy efficient. It also has the potential to be used in medicine as part of a drug delivery system that is much safer for patients. 

“Graphene has garnered attention lately for applications in electronics, computing, solar energy, building material, and more,” said Weldon Lane, a chemistry major from Blackshear, Georgia. He plans to graduate in Spring 2018 and then pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry.

“It's the wide variety of applications that makes graphene interesting. The problem is producing it. Finding an effective and efficient way to produce graphene could lead to developments in several scientific and engineering fields.” 

Students began the graphene research by creating computer simulations to visualize and test their experiments digitally. Then they started conducting real-life experiments in the lab to apply their work. The process involves using heat to exfoliate graphite and capture pure layers of graphene.

“In science, you want to do the easiest thing possible,” Burns said. “If we can find out the easiest way to synthesize graphene, it can explode in research.

“Doing something like this, you almost get to call yourself a complete scientist. At VSU, you get to be at the forefront of innovative scientific discoveries like this. At other schools, the graduate students get to do all the cool stuff, but our faculty members give the undergrad students fun stuff to do as well.”

The graphene experiments are working according to plan, meaning the students are on track to file their patent application in December.

“We're doing a lot of work with patents, which is something that isn't usually discussed or worked on at an undergraduate level,” Lane said. “I especially appreciate the exposure to that side of research.”

Megan Slater, a chemistry major from Valdosta, Georgia, who expects to graduate in Fall 2018, said the experiments and patent writing process have enhanced her lab skills and writing abilities. She is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Noyce Scholarship — a scholarship for students who want to teach science in high school — and plans to teach chemistry after obtaining a master’s degree in teaching.

“Researching graphene is not only valuable for me to advance my professional and educational career, but it is also important in the grand scheme of science and technology because graphene has so far proved to be an incredibly beneficial material,” she said.

Burns, who after graduation plans to sign a temporary contract with the United States Department of Energy as a scientist before pursuing a doctorate in materials engineering, said the graphene research is preparing him for his future by giving him experience in solving real scientific problems.

Pitts, who has tentative plans to attend medical school in Taiwan after graduation, said the research has given her skills that she can use to help people in Belize.

“Coming from a country that uses a great deal of herbal remedies to treat many diseases, it has always been an interest of mine to further study these remedies to determine whether or not they are in fact useful,” she said. “With this research, I’ve been fortunate enough to get a hands-on experience of how to set up and conduct an experiment of high caliber. Hopefully, in time, I will be able to generate research of my own on herbal remedies in my country. 

The other students involved in the research are Faatihah Meunier, Zachary Barton, Angela Bass, Kyle Brooks, James Clements, Elesha Cole, Caitlyn Heesh, Daniel Kight, Kenyanna Parrish, Julia Posey, Ashley Butts, Andres Contreras, Salena Glenn, Chelsea Jackson, Y'keisha Knowles, Briceton McNair, Zalak Patel, Priscaflorence Ubah, and Zachary Crews.

Please contact Dr. Thomas Manning, professor of chemistry, at (229) 333-7178 or to learn more.

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