Monday, December 15, 2014

A great article about graphene or, Did I catch The New Yorker in an error?

I am not a graphene expert, but I really liked this John Colapinto article about graphene research in The New Yorker. Also, if you like Rice University's Jim Tour, he gets the full The New Yorker profile treatment. But here's an interesting section on using graphene in 3D printing (emphasis mine):
The group’s members were pondering how to integrate graphene into the objects they print. They might mix the material into plastic or simply print it onto the surface of existing objects. There were still formidable hurdles. The researchers had figured out how to turn graphene into a liquid—no easy task, since the material is severely hydrophobic, which means that it clumps up and clogs the print heads. They needed to first convert graphene to graphene oxide, adding groups of oxygen and hydrogen molecules, but this process negates its electrical properties. So once they printed the object they would have to heat it with a laser. “When you heat it up,” Aby said, “you burn off those groups and reduce it back to graphene.”
As any chemist could tell you, clumping and clogging is not the definition of 'hydrophobic' (although it certainly could be a symptom.)

I'm going to pat myself on the back for seeing an error/misinterpretation that slipped through The New Yorker's famed fact-checking department. 

9 comments:

  1. Not knowing anything about the technology involved, is it possible that where the author mentions turning graphene into a liquid, maybe he really means an aqueous solution or slurry? In which case hydrophobicity could make it clumpy. Which of course would still be a failure of fact-checking....

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  2. No pats warranted IMO as I don't see the usage here as an attempt to define the term, since hydrophobic is something that is fairly widely known to non-scientist, and indeed is more a description of what results due to this material property which is where the emphasis of the authors intent seems to be.

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  3. @second Anon: Not sure how many non-scientists who saw the word "hydrophobic" would think of a surface property rather than rabies...

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  4. Too bad that they missed Tour's greatest contribution to science: Nanokids! It's interesting to see how different Tour appears to someone not in the synthetic community.

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    1. That may say more about the synthetic community than it does about Tour.

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  5. It has to be an aqueous solution in which there is poor solubility. I wonder if they tried adding a little surfactant, maybe an ionic liquid to help solubilize.

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  6. Yes, the fact-checking at the NYT is impeccable.

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    1. Ah, Mr. Blair, I fear you have the wrong institution.

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  7. You have to keep in mind the amount of interpretation that needs to go into communicating science to non-scientists. In the course of this article, there were numerous other errors, but they were all as true in spirit as the information the author was given. If the author instead says implies versus means it would be have been fine. I think you're being a bit too picky on this one...

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