Silver linings: Argonne scientists are first to grow graphene on silver

By Justin H.S. BreauxFebruary 24, 2014

Silver, meet graphene. Super strong, super light, near totally transparent and one of the best conductors of electricity ever discovered, graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms that owes its amazing properties to being two-dimensional.

Graphene, meet silver. Silver is a high-quality noble metal that corrodes very slowly in moist air and doesn’t typically interact chemically with other substances. Graphene, meanwhile, is a sought-after platform for new physics and device applications.

“You have one material, silver, that’s really good at confining light and another, graphene, that’s really good with efficiently moving electrons,” said Northwestern University graduate student Brian Kiraly, who discovered the new process making the growth of graphene on silver possible.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists at Northwestern University, are the first to grow graphene on silver, which until now posed a major challenge to many in the field. Part of the issue has to do with the properties of silver; the other involves the process by which graphene is grown.

Chemical vapor deposition is currently the industry standard for growing graphene. The technique allows hydrocarbons, like methane or ethylene, to decompose onto a hot platform in order to form carbon atoms that become graphene. However, this technique doesn’t work with a silver platform.

“The traditional method of decomposing hydrocarbon onto a transition metal wasn’t working,” said Nathan Guisinger, a staff scientist at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. “The methane won’t break down, it’ll just hit the hot silver and bounce off and remain methane, so there’s no carbon source to actually grow the graphene.”

At this point, to figure out how to grow graphene on silver, the researchers needed to understand the atomic and molecular properties of the material. For instance, atomic carbon evaporates at extremely high temperaturesover 2,400 degrees Celsiusforcing the researchers to account for a number of different parameters to create a layer one atom thick.

Additionally, whereas graphene is conventionally grown at temperatures of 1,000 degrees C or above, the new Argonne-Northwestern technique grows it at a lower temperature of 750 degrees, giving researchers more options for working with the material. This method also slows down the process to determine the right growth rate and distribution for a single layer of carbon atoms landing on the silver.

The first step in growing the graphene layer was making sure the silver substrate was “atomically clean”a hard standard to meet.

“It’s very difficult to make an atomically clean platform,” Guisinger said. “Almost all platforms exposed to air will get covered with a water layer and oxidize.” To prevent this phenomenon from occurring, the researchers work in a specially designed ultra-high vacuum environment.

To initially clean the platform, Kiraly used a technique called “sputter annealing.” This is where the platform used to grow the graphene is sprayed with ions that chew up the surface and rids it of any organic or inorganic material. The next step is to anneal the metal, a process “that heals it and allows for atomically clean and flat surfaces,” said Kiraly.

After a series of examinations, the researchers discovered that they had successfully deposited a single layer of graphene on silver.

Encouraged by this result, the researchers hope to demonstrate how to layer graphene with other one-atom-thick materials, such as silicene, into stacked atomic layers to create hybrid materials.

Because of silver’s excellent optical properties, Kiraly envisions this research having applications in detectors.

“Conventionally, you can make things with both optical and electronic components to them, as in opto-electronics devices,” said Kiraly. “Anything like a photo-detector or a solar cell has some type of light interaction that corresponds with an electronic effect or vice versa.”

There is increased interest in moving graphene from the lab to into lighter, more energy-efficient consumer devices. The University of Manchester in England, for example, will finish their National Graphene Institute next year to the tune of £61 million.

“With the discovery of how to make graphene, now there’s a hunt for more two-dimensional materials. Once they’re discovered, we want to know how to combine them,” said Guisinger.  

But for now, it is up to scientists like Guisinger and Kiraly to figure out how those atom-sized pieces fit together to create the next technological breakthroughs.

The work is outlined in a paper, “Solid-source growth and atomic-scale characterization of graphene on Ag(111)”, published in the journal Nature Communications.

This work was supported with funding by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs), premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale, supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge and Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.