Engineering Fellowships for Growth: Imperceptible smart coatings based on atomically thin materials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Engineering Computer Science and Maths


The need for greater fuel efficiency in the aeronautical, automotive and aerospace industries is driving the demand for low weight high-performance materials. For example, low specific weight electronic devices which can generate light or harvest electricity and can be embedded into paints or windows would make the structures of current vehicles considerably lighter, therefore more efficient. At the same time, low specific weight electrical conductors acting as a ground in the electrical circuits of vehicles and yet able to protect aircraft from lightning bolts would also reduce considerably the vehicle weight. Extra lightweight transparent conductors and semiconductors also constitute the fundamental ingredients for the next generation flexible solar cells and future flexible electronic components. Atomically thin materials, not only offer these desired properties, but with their excellent mechanical, thermal, electrical, and gas impermeability properties are ideal for the realization of multi-functional coatings.

Atomically thin materials are the thinnest materials which can be conceived. Graphene -a monoatomic carbon layer- is certainly the most celebrated and studied representative of this new family of materials This is the strongest known material, the best electrical and thermal conductor which is mechanically flexible and transparent. Other emerging atomically thin materials, e.g. dichalcogenides such as MoS2, have complementary characteristics to graphene such as semiconducting properties necessary for transistor applications. Recent advances in chemical functionalization have shown that the properties of these atomically thin materials can be enhanced to unprecedented levels by chemical bonding of a molecule or a chemical element to the pristine material. The most recent example of the potential of chemical functionalization is GraphExeter, a new graphene-based material which my team developed at Exeter. In this case, functionalization with FeCl3 of few-layer graphene results in the best transparent electrical conductor which outperforms Indium Tin Oxide used in displays.

The exploitation of atomically thin materials with extraordinary performances in high-value products such as smart imperceptible coatings is exactly at the heart of this proposal. Thus, this ambitious fellowship aims to build UK leadership in engineering advanced materials by exploiting the emerging technologies of atomically thin materials for prototyping imperceptible smart coatings. This will accelerate the fast development of highly efficient aircrafts, cars, displays and solar cells with added novel functionalities. Achieving this aim will be the foundation of several cutting-edge technologies crucial for our society, such as transforming the windscreens of cars and airplanes into display controls and GPS-activated maps and at the same time allowing their windows and paints to harvest electricity from the sun.
Together with the team that I will develop to deliver this research vision, we will aim at understanding the materials properties and processing challenges involved in the large scale manufacturing of atomically thin conducting and semiconducting coatings. Building on this understanding, my team will focus on developing high-value products by exploring the sustainable use of atomically thin materials for prototyping multi-functional smart coatings. Specifically, we will develop imperceptible coatings, which will not only enhance the efficiency of aircrafts, cars, displays and solar cells, but will add novel functionalities, such as light emission and energy harvesting. The outcomes of this research will therefore have a revolutionary impact on society as it will change the current landscape of many industries, ranging from automotive and aerospace to information and communication technologies. My track record of outstanding research in the studies of such materials puts me in a unique position to complete such challenging tasks.

Planned Impact

Atomically thin multi-functional coatings hold the promise of a significant impact on society. Indeed, these are the thinnest and lightest materials which can be conceived and yet they have a unique combination of mechanical, electrical and optical properties. Furthermore, the possibility to engineer these properties to fit a specific application by attaching a molecule or a chemical element to the pristine material, or by making hybrid multilayers of these systems considerably widens their potential applications.The full exploitation of these systems depends on the ability to manufacture low-cost and large-scale coatings and devices. This has not been addressed to date and is specifically at the core of this project, which is directed at manufacturing multi-functional atomically thin hybrid coatings based on graphene and dichalcogenides.
The outputs of this project will be fundamental to the commercial and the economic development of smart coatings and will have an impact on a wide range of industries. For example, the manufacturing of large area ultra-thin and highly conductive coatings based on GraphExeter (graphene doped with FeCl3) has the potential to increase the sustainability of transportation industry by making vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient. Large area highly conductive and transparent coatings would also reshape the display industry by replacing the current Indium Tin Oxide material, which is both expensive and brittle. At the same time, hybrid atomically thin conducting and semiconducting systems open up an entirely new avenue to smart coatings able to emit light and to harvest electricity from the sun. Thus the applications which will be developed during this fellowship have the potential to impact several vast and growing markets. For example, the global transportation industry is expected to generate revenue of more than $3.8 trillion in 2016. The global market for displays is expected to reach $164.24 billion by 2017. The global solar technology market is expected to reach $75.2 billion by 2016, whereas the market for flexible and printed electronics is predicted to rise to $60 billion by 2022. Likewise, the global solid state and other energy efficient lighting systems market is expected to grow to $53,469.5 million in 2015. For atomically thin materials to make serious impact on such markets, it is clear that industry-compatible and cost-effective routes to their manufacturing and to device fabrication need to be developed. This is explicitly the goal of this ambitious fellowship proposal: to pioneer low-cost, large-scale and sustainable manufacturing of atomically thin materials and devices.
Even though only 10 years have passed since graphene has been experimentally accessed, the discovery in 2012 of GraphExeter -i.e. the best known optically transparent electrical conductor, which is stable in ambient conditions [Advanced Materials 24, 2844 (2012)]- clearly shows that the next few years can be regarded as a realistic timescale for many of the benefits described above. Together with our industrial partners and the Research Knowledge Transfer office at Exeter, we will exploit commercially valuable routes to maximize the societal impact of this proposal, making the UK the first Nation to manufacture atomically thin smart coatings. Thus, the proposed work will facilitate the timely and cost-effective development of new devices and applications based on atomically thin materials. It also has the potential to generate a very significant long term economic impact by increasing the UK share of the above global markets, in addition to a societal impact due to the improvement in the quality of life that will ensue from the novel devices and materials ultimately developed. There will also be a substantial impact in the area of sustainability, since the proposed work will also lead to advances in sustainable manufacturing and sustainable energy production helping to mitigate the world-wide energy crisis.


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Description Through an interdisciplinary approach, my research has taken an internationally leading role in the science and engineering of two-dimensional (2D) materials, paving the way to their commercial exploitation in emerging technologies. This research vision has enabled me to stimulate growth in entirely new directions, by cross-fertilisation of 2D materials research with other fields. Close links between fundamental and applied research and the sheer breadth of research that I have conducted so far has enabled me to build a research group with a distinctive character and a leading international profile, attracting researchers from all around the world. Specifically, my research group currently focusses on:
1) Basic material science and physics of 2D materials (e.g. graphene, functionalized graphene, layered dichalcogenides) and of their hybrids with other established or emerging materials (e.g. organic semiconductors, perovskites). The aim driving this area is to identify and create new types of materials, devices or systems with unique characteristics and outstanding potential for disruptive innovation.
2) Engineering of 2D materials in ways that drives them towards applications in future emerging technologies. Examples include ubiquitous energy (e.g. ultrathin solar cells embedded in the paints of vehicles, walls of buildings or the side barriers of our future electrified highways), lighting and display technologies that are flexible, conformable or transparent, electronic textiles and the internet of things.
Electronic and optoelectronic materials and devices. The aim of this area is the exploitation of 2D materials with extraordinary performances in electronic and optoelectronic devices and their drive towards the next-generation electronics technology, including see through display and smart contact lenses. Achieving this aim will be the foundation of several cutting-edge technologies, such as transforming the windscreens of cars and airplanes into display controls and GPS-activated maps and at the same time allowing their windows and paints to harvest electricity from the sun. In terms of materials advances, my team developed a new growth method for graphene which is 100 times faster and 99% lower cost than standard Chemical Vapor Deposition [Adv. Mater. 27, 4200 (2015)], allowing semiconductor industry a way to mass produce graphene with present facilities rather than requiring them to build new manufacturing plants. We also further studied the GraphExeter material (i.e. few-layer graphene intercalated with FeCl3), the best carbon-based transparent conductor [Adv. Mater. 24, 2844 (2012)], and showed its resilience to extreme conditions [Nature Sci. Rep. 5, 7609 (2015)], demonstrated the potential of GraphExeter for flexible electronics [Nature Sci. Rep. 5, 16464 (2015)], foldable light emitting devices [ACS Appl. Mater. Int. 8, 16541 (2016)], and demonstrated GraphExeter as a plasmonic material with unprecedented capabilities in infrared [Nano Lett. 17, 5908 (2017)]. We also contributed to the development of a method to accurately produce MoTe2 layers and control their thickness for electronics and optoelectronics [Adv. Funct. Mater. 28 1804434 (2018)]. Our most recent innovation is the development of laser-writable high-k dielectric for 2D nanoelectronics [Science Advances 5, eaau0906 (2019)]. Engineering advances in optoelectronics include the intelligent design of fast and highly efficient atomically thin optoelectronic devices [Adv. Mater. (2017)], a novel method to engineer photodetectors in GraphExeter for ultrathin, high-definition sensing and video imaging technologies [Science Advances (2017)], 2D heterostructures for video-frame-rate imaging [Adv. Mat. 2017]. Recently we presented the first experimental evidence of an electron funnel on a chip [Nature Communications 9, 1652 (2018)], a technology that could unlock new ways of 'funnelling' the sun's energy more efficiently directly into solar panels or batteries.
Wearable/flexible electronics and optoelectronics.
My research has greatly contributed to the state-of-the-art in this field, as my team was among the first to report 2D materials based technologies for textile electronics [Nature Sci. Rep. 5, 9866 (2015) & Nature Sci. Rep.7, 4250 (2017)] and artificial skin [Adv. Mater. 27, 4200 (2015)]. These seminal contributions effectively opened up the emerging field of electronic textiles to the thinnest materials ever conceived: atomically thin materials. In this area, our group also contributed to the demonstration of ultra-small, ultra-fast and flexible non-volatile graphene memories [ACS Nano 11, 3010 (2017)]. Recently we pioneered a new technique to create graphene electronic textile fibres that can function as touch-sensors and light-emitting devices [npj Flexible Electronics 2, 25 (2018)] and demonstrated fabric-enabled pixels for displays and position sensitive functions, constituting a gateway for novel electronic skin, wearable electronic and smart textile applications. Our latest advance is the integration of highquality graphene films obtained from scalable water processing approaches in emerging energy harvesting devices [Adv. Mater. 30, 1802953 (2018)], opening new possibilities for self-powered electronic skin, flexible and wearable electronics.
Quantum Engineering & Nano Electronics. We use nano-electronic devices to investigate the electronic properties of graphene and functionalized graphene materials. This encompasses quantum phenomena studies as well as application of these materials in photodetectors, p-n diodes, transistors and memories. Advances include a tuneable energy gap in ABC-stacked trilayer graphene [Nano Lett. 15, 4429 (2015)], the realisation of a highly efficient graphene Cooper pair splitter device for quantum information processing [Nature Sci. Rep. 6, 23051 2016], and revealing the mechanism of large distance supercurrent propagation through graphene-superconductor junctions [Nano Lett. 16, 4788 (2016)]. We also developed novel ways to strain graphene [Nano Lett. 14, 1158 (2014)] which were used to experimentally study electron states in uniaxially strained graphene [Nano Lett. 15, 7943 (2015)], of interest for straintronics applications. Recently, we probed different strain configuration in 2D superlattices and provided a new mechanism to induce complex strain patterns in 2D materials [Nano Lett. 18, 7919 (2018)], with profound implications in the development of future electronic devices based on heterostructures.
Molecular Electronics My latest advance is the demonstration of novel devices for imaging at ultralow light levels based on organic semiconductors and graphene interfaces [Adv, Mater. 29, 1702993 (2017)]. Such devices pave the way for the implementation of low-cost, flexible imaging technologies at ultralow light levels.
Exploitation Route The research shows to the semiconductor industry for the very first time a way to potentially mass produce graphene with present facilities rather than requiring them to build new manufacturing plants. This new technique grows graphene 100 times faster than conventional methods, reduces costs by 99 % and has enhanced electronic quality.
Sectors Chemicals,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Energy,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Prof Craciun has set up the commercialization of graphene materials and devices produced in her group through the University of Exeter consultancy group. See: and
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Electronics,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy
Impact Types Economic

Description Graphene photonic metamaterials for fast information and communication photonics. Royal Society (International Exchange Scheme with Russia).
Amount £12,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2016 
End 06/2018
Description Imperceptible, flexible and ultra-lightweight radioactivity detectors, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) UK-France grant scheme on New materials and Nanotechnologies
Amount £148,000 (GBP)
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2015 
End 09/2019
Description Long distance spin communication in high quality single domains graphene. Royal Society (International Exchange Scheme with Sweden,
Amount £12,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2016 
End 06/2018
Description Marie Curie Individual Fellowship
Amount € 195,450 (EUR)
Funding ID EU proposal 701704 - FLAIR 
Organisation Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions 
Sector Academic/University
Country Global
Start 03/2016 
End 10/2019
Description Marie Curie individual fellowship
Amount € 195,450 (EUR)
Funding ID project 704963 - E-TEX 
Organisation Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions 
Sector Academic/University
Country Global
Start 09/2016 
End 09/2016
Description Room Temperature Quantum Electronics, Leverhulme research grants
Amount £256,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2020
Description Room temperature quantum electronics. Royal Society (International Exchange Scheme with the Netherlands
Amount £12,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2016 
End 06/2018
Description Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowship for Dr Freddie Withers
Amount £320,000 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 01/2019
Title Graphene-based detector 
Description A detector is described comprising a first graphene element (12), the first graphene element (12) comprising a few layer graphene element functionally doped with a dopant material and to which at least one electrode is connected 
IP Reference EP2946407 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2014
Licensed No
Impact n/a
Company Name CONCRENE LTD 
Description Concrene Ltd is providing engineering related scientific and technical consulting activities covering formulations for graphene reinforced concrete 
Year Established 2018 
Impact There is a constant drive for development of ultrahigh performance multifunctional construction materials by the modern civil engineering technologies. These materials have to exhibit enhanced performance in terms of durability and mechanical strength, and incorporate functionalities that satisfy multiple uses in order to be suitable for future emerging structural applications. To address these challenges, there is a wide consensus in the research community that concrete, the most used composite construction material worldwide, has to be engineered at the nanoscale, where its chemical and physico-mechanical properties can be truly enhanced. We have developed a new technique that uses nanoengineering technology to incorporate graphene into traditional concrete production (Advanced Function Materials 2018, vol 28, page 1705183). We have reported an innovative multifunctional nanoengineered concrete composite displaying an unprecedented range of enhanced properties compared to standard concrete. These include an increase of up to 146% in the compressive strength and up to 79.5% in the flexural one while at the same time we found an enhanced electrical and thermal performance. A surprising decrease in water permeability by nearly 400% compared to the standard concrete makes this novel composite material ideally suitable for constructions in areas subject to flooding. The unprecedented gamut of functionalities that we reported are produced by the addition of water-stabilised graphene dispersions, an advancement in the emerging field of nanoengineered concrete which can be readily applied in a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly construction industry. Production of concrete accounts for up to 7% of the global CO2 emissions. Graphene reinforced concrete may have a positive impact on the environment by contributing to the decrease of carbon emissions emitted by cement manufacturing. We estimate that reducing the quantity of cement by 50% of the required concrete material while still meeting the specifications for the loading of buildings, would lead to a reduction of 446kg/tonne of the carbon emissions by the cement manufacturing which would be significant.
Description GraphExeter illuminates bright new future for flexible lighting devices 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The press release published on the university website was followed by the interest of the media. Below are some examples.
1) GraphExeter, one of the nanotechnology highlights of 2016, IOP Nanotechweb "Highlights of 2016", December 27, 2016
2) Ground-breaking production method could accelerate worldwide 'graphene revolution',, December 14, 2016
3) Bendy lights invented in Devon could transform your smartphone, The Herald, June 23, 2016.
4) Graphene composite enables metre-sized flexible displays, IOP, July 19, 2016.
5) Exeter's GraphExeter material to open the door to flexible screens, Graphene-info, June 28, 2016
6) GraphExeter material illuminates bright new future for flexible lighting devices,, June 23, 2016.
7) GraphExeter Illuminates Bright New Future for Flexible Lighting Devices, Science Newsline, June 23, 2016
8) Graphene used for flexible lighting, Pan European Networks, June 23, 2016
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016