Identification of high performance solvents for the sustainable processing of graphene†
Nanomaterials have many advanced applications, from bio-medicine to flexible electronics to energy storage, and the broad interest in graphene-based materials and devices means that high annual tonnages will be required to meet this demand. However, manufacturing at the required scale remains unfeasible until economic and environmental obstacles are resolved. Liquid exfoliation of graphite is the preferred scalable method to prepare large quantities of good quality graphene, but only low concentrations are achieved and the solvents habitually employed are toxic. Furthermore, good dispersions of nanomaterials in organic solvents are crucial for the synthesis of many types of nanocomposites. To address the performance and safety issues of solvent use, a bespoke approach to solvent selection was developed and the renewable solvent Cyrene was identified as having excellent properties. Graphene dispersions in Cyrene were found to be an order of magnitude more concentrated than those achieved in N-methylpyrrolidinone (NMP). Key attributes to this success are optimum solvent polarity, and importantly a high viscosity. We report the role of viscosity as crucial for the creation of larger and less defective graphene flakes. These findings can equally be applied to the dispersion of other layered bi-dimensional materials, where alternative solvent options could be used as drop-in replacements for established processes without disruption or the need to use specialized equipment. Thus, the discovery of a benign yet high performance graphene processing solvent enhances the efficiency, sustainability and commercial potential of this ever-growing field, particularly in the area of bulk material processing for large volume applications.