Graphene in Spotlight as Italy’s Area Science Park Turns 40
Area Science Park's Campus Basovizza.
Area Science Park's Campus Basovizza.

Graphene is a two-dimensional material consisting of a layer of carbon atoms. It is very thin, but also as flexible as plastic, featuring a mechanical strength one hundred times greater than that of steel. That's why graphene is considered perfect for a wide array of industrial and technological uses. However, till now its production has been quite difficult, making it extremely expensive to use commercially.

That could soon change. Recent research at the Area Science Park in Trieste, Italy, has revealed the mechanism for graphene growth on the surface of a common metal, nickel, opening up new avenues in production technologies. Published in Science Magazine, the study was conducted jointly by the Istituto Officina dei Materiali (IOM-Cnr), a research institute located in Area, and the Department of Physics at the University of Trieste.

“We know that there are individual atoms on metal surfaces that are free to move easily and that are involved in many of the processes that take place on surfaces,” explains Cristina Africh, a scientist at Iom-Cnr. “In our study, we have demonstrated that, in a nickel sample used for growing graphene, these very free atoms of nickel act as catalysts, facilitating the graphene growth process.”

“In addition to its outstanding scientific value, this result is of great interest for application purposes, since one of the current methods for the industrial production of graphene consists in using a nickel substrate for growing graphene layers with few defects and a reduced production cost,” concludes Africh. “Knowledge of the details of the growth mechanism, unknown until now, is therefore crucial to define a strategy for the development of new and more efficient processes for graphene production at an industrial level.”

The team of researchers was able to record the process in real time, revealing the behaviour of the individual surface atoms, using a high-speed scanning module developed with Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste, an international research centre also based at Area, and specializing in the study of materials through a highly versatile and powerful tool: synchrotron light.

“With a scanning tunnelling microscope, we filmed what happens along the edge of a graphene flake as it grows, at a temperature of about 450 degrees Celsius, obtaining 60 images per second, a speed well above those used in film or television and perceived by the human eye,” clarifies Laerte Patera, a PhD student at the University of Trieste who worked on the project at Iom-CNR for his thesis in nanotechnology.

Area Science Park, a prominent Italian research hub, turns 40 this year. With its mission to foster innovation, enhance research and develop high-tech businesses, Area has become one of Europe's most important multi-sector science & technology parks.

Today Trieste boasts the highest percentage of researchers in the world, helping to put Italy on the global science and innovation map again. Area has transformed Trieste into a pocket of excellence, nurturing and developing tech companies, ranging from life science to molecular engineering. Area Science Park employs over 2,600 people, has been the incubator for the creation of more than 53 high-tech start-ups, and has attracted more than €8 million seed money for these start-ups’ development.    

“Today, continuous innovation is a must. If you want to improve your products, you need to access knowledge in a very fixed and certain timeframe. That requires a solid link between public research centres and private markets,” says Stefano Casaleggi, Area’s Managing Director. “This link is made of technologies, competence, methodologies and people that every day make it happen. This is our daily work.”

At Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste, for instance, Area hosts two different light sources: Elettra and FERMI. Elettra is a third-generation synchrotron light source, comprising of a 260-meter storage ring where, thanks to intense electromagnetic fields, electrons of very high-energy, travelling at nearly the speed of light, are circulated and forced to follow undulating trajectories. This induces them to release energy in the form of synchrotron light: electromagnetic waves over a wide range of wavelengths, from infrared to X-rays, which are emitted tangentially to the storage ring. The light beams produced are conveyed to beamlines that focus them and select their characteristics according to the experimental needs.

It is a powerful tool for analysing materials in solid, liquid, and gaseous states: indeed, whenever it reaches a sample to be analysed, it can interact with its atoms in various ways, and can be partly transmitted, partly absorbed, and partly reflected. Each interaction is able to provide key information on the nature of the material – its chemical composition, its microscopic structure, the kind of chemical bonding, and so forth.

FERMI is a fourth-generation light source, a free electron laser (FEL) that can generate incredibly intense light pulses (up to 10 billion times more intense that those generated by third-generation light sources) of ultra-brief duration – as brief as the oscillation of an atom within a molecule. These characteristics make the light produced by FELs the only probe able to follow the dynamic evolution of atomic and electronic transformations of materials. FERMI was designed to study ultra-fast phenomena such as the propagation of a heat wave, the growth of a biological membrane, or the actions of a catalyser, and makes it possible to record a rapid sequence of images which, taken together, make up a veritable film of the process under study. FERMI allows extremely advanced analyses of materials that push the boundaries of scientific research. 

In June 2018, Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste signed a science and technology cooperation agreement with ENI. The Italian energy giant will use the very high skills and cutting-edge equipment of the international research centre for undertaking research in renewable energy and environmental technology.

In particular, Elettra will provide important contributions to the characterization of new materials to be used in renewable energy production, geo-physical studies and the analysis of chemical and physical processes related to the use of fossil fuels and lubricants to reduce their environmental impacts.

“We are not only working for the international scientific community, but for some time we have been promoting the use of our facilities by Italian and foreign companies that are strongly oriented to innovation and technologies,” explains Prof. Alfonso Franciosi, Chairman & CEO of Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste. “In particular, our agreement with Eni aims at providing new impetus to a thirty-year collaboration that could have significant impacts in terms of new knowledge and innovative technology applications”.

The multi-year framework agreement will be implemented through specific research and development projects to be launched over the next few months.