It is not very well-known, but India’s import bill for electronic items is next only to petroleum products. And by 2020, the value of electronic imports is likely to actually exceed that of petrol. We have a very vibrant electronic sector, with lots of activity in research and development, applications, and product use, but negligible manufacturing. Almost every electronic component, equipment or instrument being used in the laboratory or industry in India is imported.
It is in this context, we believe, that our latest effort, to design and construct a producer of graphene, breaks new ground. Graphene is special kind of pure carbon, just one atom thick, that has the potential to be used in very novel ways in the electronics industry.
Graphene has been the subject of much interest in the electronics industry because of its extraordinary properties. It is stiffer than steel, and yet very flexible owing to its thinness. It conducts electricity and is already being used as a conductor in some components. There is a lot of demand for graphene from the laboratories and also the industry.
There are two main ways of producing graphene. The older, and more common way, is to break down graphite, another form of carbon, into more flatter, flake-like graphene. This produces graphene that is about 4-5 microns (one micron is one millionth of a metre) in width. This is enough as far as carrying out research is concerned. But for using graphene in technology products, bigger sizes are required.
The other, more modern method uses methane in a specially constructed reactor. The graphene produced in this manner has no size restriction.
We had built a prototype reactor some time back and were producing graphene mainly for our own research purposes. Once in a while, we used to get requests from other laboratories, or research groups, and even from members of the industry for graphene, and we supplied them small amounts.
It was when these requests became more frequent, and the interest in graphene grew, that we decided to turn the prototype into a full commercial reactor, that anyone could buy and produce the material.
We then got in touch with KAS tech, an electronics company, which was already partnering with us on a variety of projects. Once we were convinced about the idea, we floated a proposal to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY) that runs a special multiplier grants scheme for such projects that try to give a fillip to indigenous manufacturing.
The scheme significantly covered our costs and we decided to build a commercial reactor for producing graphene.
We needed to work on the design, add new functionalities to ensure that it was one fully-integrated system and the customer did not need to invest in any add-ons, and improve on the safety features. We also had to improve on its appearance so that it looked like a professional product in the market. We were satisfied to see that the end product is as good as any in the international market. We launched the product at an exhibition in Bangalore last month.
By: Srinivasan Raghavan, IISc, Bangalore
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