Copper foils are a patchwork of different crystal structures. As the methane falls onto the foil surface, the shapes of the copper crystals it encounters affect how well the carbon atoms form graphene.
Different crystal shapes are assigned index numbers. Using several advanced imaging techniques, the Illinois team found that patches of copper with higher index numbers tend to have lower-quality graphene growth. They also found that two common crystal structures, numbered (100) and (111), have the worst and the best growth, respectively. The (100) crystals have a cubic shape, with wide gaps between atoms. Meanwhile, (111) has a densely packed hexagonal structure.
"In the (100) configuration the carbon atoms are more likely to stick in the holes in the copper on the atomic level, and then they stack vertically rather than diffusing out and growing laterally," Wood said. "The (111) surface is hexagonal, and graphene is also hexagonal. It's not to say there's a perfect match, but that there's a preferred match between the surfaces."
Researchers now are faced with balancing the cost of all (111) copper and the value of high-quality, defect-free graphene. It is possible to produce single-crystal copper, but it is difficult and prohibitively expensive.
The U. of I. team speculates that it may be possible to improve copper foil manufacturing so that it has a higher percentage of (111) crystals. Graphene grown on such foil would not be ideal, but may be "good enough" for most applications.
"The question is, how do you optimize it while still maintaining cost effectiveness for technological applications?" said Pop, a co-author of the paper. "As a community, we're still writing the cookbook for graphene. We're constantly refining our techniques, trying out new recipes. As with any technology in its infancy, we are still exploring what works and what doesn't."
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|Contact: Liz Ahlberg|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign