The first Brazilian research center devoted to graphene will bring together researchers with internationally recognized expertise in this field in São Paulo. In July 2014, Mackenzie Presbyterian University will open its Advanced Graphene, Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology Research Center (MackGraphe), with an investment of R$20 million just for the construction of a 4,230 square meter building to house laboratories in the Consolação neighborhood, in downtown São Paulo. The research to be conducted there is part of the thematic project Graphene: Photonics and Optoelectronics, a partnership between Mackenzie Presbyterian University and the Graphene Research Center of the National University of Singapore, which will receive an investment of R$9.8 million from FAPESP.
The project, which began in April 2013, is part of FAPESP’s São Paulo Excellence Chairs (SPEC) program, which seeks to establish collaborations between institutions in the state of São Paulo and senior researchers working outside Brazil. In this program, the researcher maintains the link to his or her home institution and agrees to coordinate the project and stay in Brazil for at least 12 weeks of every year of the five year or longer term. During this period, the researcher collaborates with researchers from the host institution in advising a group of FAPESP grant holders and scholarship recipients, including postdoctoral researchers, PhDs and undergraduate students. The graphene SPEC program is coordinated by the Brazilian physicist Antonio Hélio de Castro Neto, a professor at Boston University, and the Singapore center’s director since 2010.
In addition to almost daily discussions with MackGraphe researchers in Singapore, Castro Neto maintains weekly contact with researchers in São Paulo through the Internet, in order to monitor the daily progress of the project.
The objectives of the initiative include artificial synthesis of graphene, the characterization of the material produced and the construction of optoelectronic devices for use in the optical communications industry. “We hope that, in the not too distant future, MackGraphe will lead research in graphene optoelectronics,” says Castro Neto, who has been in the United States since 1991, where he earned his doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois and did postdoctoral research at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California. Castro Neto was essential in bringing MackGraphe to fruition. Physicist Eunézio Antônio Thoroh de Souza, a professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University and head of the center, presented the idea to the university’s president, engineer Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto, during a trip to Singapore. That was when the idea of establishing a center in Brazil similar to that coordinated by Prof. Castro Neto arose.
Research was initially carried out in physics and engineering laboratories at Mackenzie Presbyterian University using graphene samples provided by Castro Neto’s team. When the MackGraphe building is ready, researchers will be able to produce graphene—a flexible, waterproof, extremely durable material capable of carrying 100 times more electricity than copper. It was first isolated in 2004 by Russian researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work.
The material is seen as strategic for the development of a new era of electronics, which could lead to the emergence of smaller and faster quantum computers. It also has the potential for applications in the manufacture of liquid crystal devices with graphene electrodes, which can be used in televisions and computer monitors. “Our focus has been to establish national and international collaborations,” explains Thoroh. This includes the exchange of scientists and students. “Two of our researchers are in Singapore, and we have two of theirs visiting us here,” says Thoroh, also mentioning two Mexican postdoctoral researchers, two Indians and one doctoral student from Colombia who are spending time in Brazil.
The right time
University president Aguiar Neto stresses the strategic importance of graphene. “Brazil lost the silicon race, and silicon is the main raw material for manufacturing chips and other electronics industry components,” he says. “We want to seize the opportunity for graphene.” He says that one of the most promising partnerships is to be signed with Texas Tech University, which has developed a new technique for exfoliation—the procedure whereby graphene is obtained from graphite.
Physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov obtained graphene through exfoliation using adhesive tape and a plate made of graphite, the same material used in pencils. Using this process, the Russians managed to produce a crystalline sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a network of hexagonal shapes only one atom thick. Although the process is well known, it cannot be used to produce large quantities of graphene.
The method that is being tested to produce graphene on an industrial scale is CVD (chemical vapor deposition) which, in Brazil, is being developed by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). “By using this technique, we were able to produce a vapor of carbon atoms which, when deposited on a copper substrate, formed a graphene film on the copper,” explains physicist Marcos Pimenta, a UFMG professor and coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology (INCT) for Carbon Nanomaterials.
MackGraphe is interested in developing this process and that is why Pimenta was invited to collaborate on the project. “It was Prof. Marcos Pimenta who first starting carrying out nanocarbon research in Brazil, 15 years ago. One cannot speak of nanotubes, which is actually graphene in a cylindrical shape, without citing UFMG,“ says Thoroh. FAPESP awarded Pimenta a grant to teach at Mackenzie Presbyterian University as a visiting professor during the second half of 2013 as well as to help organize the new research center. The foundation also funded the purchase of a Raman spectrometer, a German device costing R$700,000 that is essential for studying the electronic properties of graphene.
“MackGraphe is only the beginning. If Brazil really wants to be a world leader, it has to invest heavily, like the Europeans did, and establish a long-term policy for this technology,” adds Castro Neto. According to Pimenta, the fact that the country already has trained personnel who have already been working with nanotubes will allow Brazil to participate in this new technological race. “We’re managing to keep pace with the developments in graphene research since its discovery. We already have an international position in this field of research,” the researcher points out.
Graphene: photonics and opto-electronics: UPM-NUS collaboration (2012/50259-8); Grant Mechanism São Paulo Excellence Chairs Program (SPEC); Coord. Antônio Hélio de Castro Neto – Boston University and Graphene Research Center of Singapore National University; Investment R$9,763,230.09 (FAPESP).