Graphene as an open-source material
Don Basile is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist with more than 20 years of executive experience in technology, healthcare and telecommunications.
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The open-source model paved the way for significant advancements in the fields of software and programming, and has positively affected industries such as medicine, engineering and even fashion. The success of open-source methods that focus on decentralization and allows for open collaboration on projects brings to light the potential for its implementation in other areas.
Among these areas, the 2D wonder-material graphene could greatly benefit from the widespread experimentation of open-source use. In its current state, graphene is primarily researched by scientists in universities and labs, but by making graphene a material that is open to be improved upon by anyone, we might see the fulfillment of the potential that graphene has been hailed for since its discovery.
The benefits of open-source and what it can do for graphene
The collaborative nature of open-source coding has significantly boosted our software capabilities in a short span of time. Open-sourcing allows for companies to not have to start from scratch, using existing software and modifying it for their own purposes. This saves a large amount of time and resources and gives companies more room to experiment and accelerate their advancements. Open-source methods help achieve a broader scope of innovation, because the people researching and tinkering are not limited to the professionals in the lab, but can now include hobbyists or aspiring scientists looking to get more involved.
The journey toward graphene’s golden age is a slow but steady one.
For graphene, this level of experimentation could take it beyond its current limits. Graphene’s capabilities are staggering — it is essentially 2D, flexible, 200 times stronger than steel, conducts heat 10 times better than copper and conducts electricity 250 times better than silicon. Its abilities are far-reaching and extremely potent, making graphene applications nearly endless.
As it stands, graphene research is limited to a select few technology companies — Samsung, for instance, has the most graphene patents to date. Otherwise, most graphene research is done in university labs. In the same way that open-sourcing has built up software and related technologies, open-sourcing could also viably allow a wider range of individuals and communities to help unlock graphene’s unrealized potential.
Current limitations of open-source graphene
Graphene is fundamentally different from software in that it is a physical resource. Since the material’s discovery, quantity has been a serious issue, preventing the material from seeing widespread use. Natural reserves of graphene are few and far between, and while scientists have discovered ways of producing graphene, the methods have proved unscalable.
In addition, graphene would need a way to be experimented with by the average user. For those who don’t have the same equipment researchers do, how can they go about tinkering with graphene? In order for graphene to become an open-source material, a solution for these two problems must be found.
Mass production and 3D printing: solutions for open-source graphene
The solutions may be closer at hand than you might think. Recently, MIT researchers discovered a potentially scalable way to mass-produce graphene. Utilizing an industrial manufacturing process known as a roll-to-roll method, combined with a chemical vapor deposition (a common way for researchers to create graphene), the researchers were able to produce a graphene foil at 5cm per minute. After their machine had run for four hours, they had produced 10 meters of graphene. If this process continues to prove viable, we may begin to see the mass production of graphene become a reality.
For issues of experimentation, 3D printers are increasingly becoming capable of filling the role. The cost of 3D printers have been steadily decreasing as they become more capable. 3D printing software is also beginning to see a shift toward open-source methods as opposed to the proprietary angle that the 3D printing industry began with. 3D printers use cutting software to actually perform the printing process, and often will need additional software to help create 3D models. While 3D printers come with their own software built-in, open-source trends are allowing owners to edit the software based on their personal needs, and also allows them to install other cutting and modeling software onto the printer.
One of the most important aspects of 3D printing is the material used to create objects. 3D printers are capable of using a number of materials, including plastic polymers, metal and even wood. Recently, researchers at Virginia Tech University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have been experimenting with 3D printing with graphene. They successfully created 3D graphene aerogels and foams that can be shaped to suit various needs. Graphene is an essentially 2D material, so the ability to craft it into a three-dimensional form opens up the current possibilities for the material, extending beyond the membrane technology that many researchers and companies have focused on.
The capabilities to mass produce graphene and utilize it for 3D printing make it possible for open-source sharing on the material to come to fruition. With mass production techniques, graphene will be available for anyone to experiment. In addition, its usage in 3D printers can drive key discoveries or innovations that could lead to graphene’s full utilization in our products.
The journey toward graphene’s golden age is a slow but steady one. We are continually finding ways to overcome the obstacles that stop graphene from changing our lives. Achieving mass production and increased 3D-printing capabilities for the material are essential in making graphene a shareable and iterative technology. If we are able to use graphene as an open-source material, there’s no telling where the wonder material could take us.