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|Artistic view:Water easily evaporates through graphene oxide membranes but they represent an impermeable barrier for other molecules - Dr Rahul R.Nair|
University of Manchester graphene researchers have been awarded a £3.5m funding boost that could bring desalination plants, safer food packaging and enhanced disease detection closer to reality.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the research focuses on membranes that could provide solutions to worldwide problems; from stopping power stations releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to detecting the chemical signals produced by agricultural pests.
The latest research grant comes just months after The University of Manchester was awarded £2.2m to lead research into graphene batteries and supercapacitors for energy storage.
No molecules can get through a perfect sheet of graphene and when platelets of graphene are built into more complex structures, highly selective membranes can be generated. The aim is, together with industrial partners, to produce working membranes for applications related to sustainability, energy, health, defence and food security.
Wonder material graphene was first isolated in 2004 at The University of Manchester by Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov. Their work earned them the 2010 Nobel prize for Physics.
Graphene is the world's thinnest, strongest and most conductive material, and has the potential to revolutionise a huge number of diverse applications; from smartphones and ultrafast broadband to drug delivery and computer chips.
The membrane programme builds on ground-breaking research at the University. Previous research showed that graphene oxide membranes are highly permeable to water, while being completely impermeable to gases and organic liquids when dry.
These membranes will be developed for a variety of applications, such as the removal of water when making biofuels by fermentation, and as components of fuel cells.
The research is led by Professor Peter Budd, of the School of Chemistry. He said: "We have also invented a range of polymers - called Polymers of Intrinsic Microporosity (PIMs) - which form membranes that are very good for separating gases and organic liquids.
"These are of interest, for example, for removing carbon dioxide from power station flue gases, or for removing organic compounds from water. By combining PIMs with graphene, we expect to produce membranes with even better performance under long-term conditions of use.
"We will also be looking at practical ways of using the ability of graphene to act as a perfect barrier in, for example, food packaging, and we will be building graphene into sensors for detecting human diseases and agricultural pests."
The research into graphene batteries and supercapacitors is led by Professor Robert Dryfe, also from the School of Chemistry. The research will explore ways of addressing the limiting factors of storage for personal devices.
The University of Manchester is building the £61m National Graphene Institute, a research hub where scientists and industry will work side by side on developing the applications of the future. Funded by the EPSRC and the European Regional Development Fund, the building is expected to open in spring 2015.
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