June 21 (UPI) -- A team of researchers from Texas and China have managed to create graphene foam using a 3D printer. The production method could eventually yield commercial quantities of the material.
Graphene's benefits have been well-documented by material scientists. The atomically thin carbon sheets are exceptionally strong, flexible and conductive. But producing graphene in bulk has proven difficult, limiting its potential use in commercial technologies -- whether they be medical implants or smartphones.
Scientists at Rice University and China's Tianjin University, however, have found a way to turn nongraphene starting materials into graphene foam using a 3D printer. Researchers detailed their breakthrough in the journal journal ACS Nano.
"This study is a first of its kind," Rice chemist James Tour said in a news release.
The latest breakthrough builds on previous research conducted at Rice. In 2016, scientists converted powdered sugar and nickel into 3D graphene foam using lasers. Earlier this year, researchers bolstered the foam's strength by adding carbon nanotubes to the composite material.
The latest method also starts with powdered sugar and nickel. No molds or high temperatures are needed. The new technique relies on a laser-powered 3D printer.
The laser sinters the powder, converting the grains into a solid composite. Layer by layer, the laser converts powder into solid form, with more powder added atop each completed layer. The 2D graphene layers form a 3D foam block the size of a fingertip.
The laser melts the sugar and the nickel acts as catalyst, setting off a chain reaction that yields graphene after the laser moves on to melt neighboring powder particles.
The graphene foam formed by the commercially available CO2 laser features large pores and a low density. Scientists say the powder ratio can be altered to change the foam's pore size.
"The 3D graphene foams prepared by our method show promise for applications that require rapid prototyping and manufacturing of 3D carbon materials, including energy storage, damping and sound absorption," said Rice grad student Yilun Li.