Frequently asked questions

What are atomically thin materials?

Atomically thin materials are building blocks of matter that are only one or a few atoms thick. They occupy a realm between molecules and macroscopic solids. They can be dissolved in liquids and manipulated like large molecules, or transferred to a solid surface where they can be contacted by electrodes to form the working element of a solid-state electronic device.

What are the 2-D materials currently being studied?

  • Graphene is a single atom thick plane of carbon arranged in a honeycomb lattice. It is the basic constituent of graphite, which is a stack of graphene layers. The carbon atoms within a layer of graphene are extremely strongly bonded – graphene is the strongest substance known – but very weakly bonded to neighbouring layers. This graphite can be disassembled easily into graphene.
  • Molybdenum disulphide is a three-atom-thick semiconductor, and can be used to make transistors with comparable performance to silicon, yet transparent and flexible.
  • Topological insulators are new materials that are insulators (do not conduct electricity) in their interiors, but metallic (conductors of electricity) on their surfaces. In three-dimensional topological insulators, electrical current is carried in an atomically thin two-dimensional layer at the surface of the material. In two-dimensional topological insulators, current is carried along the edges of the material, and in principle can flow without resistance.

What is novel about these materials?

Atomically thin materials have many novel aspects. Many atomically thin materials have unusual electronic and optical properties owing to their extreme thinness. They have large surface area, and many of their properties can be changed by modifying their surfaces. They occupy a realm between molecules and macroscopic solids, and can be dissolved in liquids and manipulated like large molecules. They form very weak bonds with other materials, and hence retain their interesting properties when placed on many different surfaces, such as plastics or glass.

What applications do these materials have or might they have and in which industries?

Atomically thin materials are being considered for a variety of applications. Materials like graphene and molybdenum disulphide may be used as a stand-alone active thin film to construct transistors, and, unlike silicon, these transistors are transparent and compatible with plastic substrates. Graphene is an excellent conductor of electricity and is more than 97% transparent, so is useful as a transparent electrode for displays, touch screens, and photovoltaics.

Atomically thin materials can also be used as unique 2-D molecular building blocks for constructing macroscopic structures for energy storage and conversion, high-performance structural composites, ultrasensitive tactile sensors, filtration membranes, scaffolds for living tissue, and more.

Why have this new Centre at Monash University?

There is a growing international interest in atomically thin materials, but, until now, there has been no centre in Australia, despite Australia being a leading country for this research. Centre Directors Professors Fuhrer and Li have established international reputations in the field of atomically thin materials, and Monash has significant strength in this area as well as closely related field such as photovoltaics, water treatment, energy storage and biomedicine.

This offers an opportunity for Monash to take the lead in atomically thin materials research in Australia and the Centre fosters interactions among existing researchers, brings researchers in related disciplines together with those with expertise in atomically thin materials, fosters partnerships with international partners and industry, and provides a highly multidisciplinary environment to train early career researchers and students.

The establishment of the Centre also facilitates state-of-the-art shared facilities for the processing and application of atomically thin materials for practical applications and transferring research outcomes to industry.

What are the benefits to Australia in leading the way in this field of research?

Australia has reserves of some of the raw materials (e.g. graphite, and molybdenite which is molybdenum disulphide).

Applications of atomically thin materials will require new processing and manufacturing techniques. Developing the intellectual property here allows Australia to get into this new industry from the ground floor.

New materials are the ultimate engine for driving industrial transformation. The great potential of graphene has been recognised by the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics and the recent launch of major graphene initiatives across European countries, China, Korea, and Singapore. Numerous companies, including Samsung, Intel, IBM and Airbus, have started to invest heavily in graphene R&D. In Australia, there has been growing interest across academic and business communities to develop high-value-adding high-tech products from graphite-derived graphene. Production and use of graphene from graphite provides unprecedented opportunities to revive Australia's manufacturing industry while adding high value to our emerging graphite mining industry.

Several Australian graphite resource companies have started graphene research and commercialisation and graphene start-ups such as NanoCarbon and Ionic Industry have recently been established to produce graphene. Scalable production of graphene from graphite is being pursued by many companies across the world including graphene start-ups in Australia. Nevertheless, successful production of large amounts of graphene presents only the first step for graphene application. The real-world application of graphene-based bulk materials requires a deeper understanding of how graphene sheets can be integrated with each other, or with other materials, to ensure that the desirable properties of individual sheets are transferred into the bulk structure, to achieve engineering solutions and realise new applications. Highly skilled researchers, new knowledge and IP about bulk graphene engineering are the key for new industries to establish and thrive in the coming decade.

The graphene industry across the world is at a very early stage of development. European countries have been leading the effort on the fundamental science of graphene. Engineering graphene to enable disruptive real-world applications has just begun globally.

With the new Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials, Australia now has the chance to help shape the era of graphene engineering and to lead the world in research and commercialisation of bulk materials based on graphite-derived graphene.