Graphene barrier properties investigated by UK researchers

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Scanning electron micrograph of a fallen mesa of graphite. This is the way graphene molecules were 'extracted' from bulk graphite. Photo courtesy of University of Manchester
Scanning electron micrograph of a fallen mesa of graphite. This is the way graphene molecules were 'extracted' from bulk graphite. Photo courtesy of University of Manchester
Graphene could be used in some form as a barrier material in packaging in the future, according to researchers from a UK university.

The University of Manchester is to start a five year project in July looking at graphene uses commercially in a number of areas, with one being food packaging.

Initial focus will be the potential on the application in beverage can coatings and to see if it can replace some coatings currently used but the team also anticipate it could be used in a range of packaging applications.

They will also investigate incorporating graphene into polymers for uses including gas barriers and can coatings to protect surfaces and extend the shelf life of products.

It is already understood that graphene has superior barrier properties with no gases able to pass through it – even helium - but how to use it practically, economically and on a large scale is what the project hopes to find out.

The single layer of the material, named graphene, can be formed by splitting graphite, found in pencils, into increasingly thinner “pancakes”, according to an explanation on the University’s website.

Funding boost

The research is part of a £3.5m funding boost that could bring desalination plants, safer food packaging and enhanced disease detection.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the research focuses on membranes that could provide solutions to worldwide problems.

The muted antimicrobial properties of graphene are not a central focus but will be taken into account.

The membrane programme builds on research showing that graphene oxide membranes are highly permeable to water, while being completely impermeable to gases and organic liquids when dry.

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 and food security.

Practical 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​,” said Professor Peter Budd, of the School of Chemistry.

He said supply depends on the quality of graphite that is being sourced, the higher the quality the more potential supply issues are likely to occur.

It could replace current barrier coatings that don’t do the job as well or have problems with regards to their food contact properties.

The researchers believe in five years they won’t have a product to commercialise but they will be well on the way and working with key people in industry to enable market use in the future.

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