A professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering has been awarded a $1 million grant to lead research on graphene, an atom-thick layer of carbon scientists and engineers believe could one day surpass silicon, steel and plastic and thus transform how everything from electronics, cars, airplanes and even buildings are produced.

Dr. Rodney S. Ruoff, a physical chemist who has pioneered research on graphene-based materials for more than 12 years and is a professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s Mechanical Engineering Department, will spearhead the three-year research effort funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Established in 1954 by the founder of The Superior Oil Company, William Myron Keck, the foundation has focused in recent years on funding science and engineering research, medical research and undergraduate education.

“The Keck Foundation’s investment in graphene research will yield extraordinary results as this ultra-strong, and high thermal and electrical conductivity material becomes scalable for widespread use,” said Cockrell School of Engineering Dean Gregory L. Fenves. “Whether that application is to build faster computers, energy efficient mobile devices, or stronger and lighter aircraft, we at The University of Texas at Austin are honored by the foresight and trust the Keck Foundation has placed in Dr. Ruoff and his research team as they pioneer new methodologies to solve global challenges.”

The research will be guided by Ruoff and involve postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students from across science and engineering disciplines. The goal is to enable the large-scale creation and production of graphene and ultrathin graphite, a material Ruoff predicts is the potential successor of steel for structural applications, of silicon for electronics applications and as a replacement for copper and aluminum in thermal management applications. Ruoff, a Cockrell Family Regents Chair, said the materials also hold exceptional promise for use in microelectromechanical systems, in sensors and as a transparent conductive film.

As a component layer of graphite, the same material as is in pencil lead, the theoretical possibility of graphene has been around since the 1920s. But research in the field has recently burgeoned, in large part due to pioneering work by Ruoff and colleagues, and graphene was catapulted into mainstream media last year when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Russian scientists researching the material. The multilayer graphene method employed in 2004 by the Nobel recipients was the same method developed by Ruoff five years prior, however this method is not scalable for commercial use.

Since then, collaborations between Ruoff and other University of Texas at Austin faculty and industry partners have created new methods that should be scalable to a large area, by growth on metals such as copper foil.

But while the potential for graphene seems endless, harnessing graphene into a low-cost, large-scale product has been a challenge for engineers and scientists. With the $1 million research grant, Ruoff and his team aim to change that.

“Graphene has not been scaled to the sorts of dimensions that would mean production on the factory floor could be done,” Ruoff said. “There is exciting and important fundamental science on it and ultrathin graphite that will be tackled with this support from the W.M. Keck Foundation. This three-year effort will help us to address a fascinating blend of fundamental scientific and nanomanufacturing research. Our challenge is to achieve superb properties over significant length scales so that these materials can have a huge and positive impact on society.”

Ruoff, along with one staff scientist, three graduate students, two postdoctoral fellows and possibly undergraduate students, will take advantage of already existing resources and graphene expertise at The University of Texas Austin as well as industry partners, including graphene-based spin-off companies founded by Ruoff.

The team plans to work in several phases to address the larger challenges facing scalable graphene. For example, when graphene is cut it typically loses its conductivity. Ruoff and team will study ways to reverse this loss as well as construct a new graphene reactor that will help identify pathways for scale-up.

The total cost of the research project is more than $1.5 million, with the Keck Foundation funding $1 million and the university supporting the remainder.

“Having The University of Texas at Austin provide such financial support for this research shows there is intense enthusiasm over the impact our work could have on campus and in the state of Texas,” said Ruoff, who is considered a world leader in graphene-based materials research.

The University of Texas at Austin has filed 10 patents by Ruoff and other faculty on novel graphene-based materials.

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cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students
cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students