Scientists discover a 3D material that acts like graphene, but it has some quirks

A sheet of graphene. Photo courtesy of Graphene Frontiers.

Graphene, that 2D sheet of carbon atoms with some impressive qualities, has its flaws. Namely, it can’t block electricity from flowing, which makes its chances of being incorporated into solar panels slimmer. Scientists are working on ways to tweak it to be more compatible, but they’re also on the lookout for alternatives that perform just as well.

Na3Bi, a combination of the metals sodium and bismuth, is the most recent emerging option. SLAC and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers were able to create a sample of the material and reveal its structure for the first time, confirming what scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences had theorized: Na3Bi’s electrical properties mean it really would perform similarly to graphene. Basically, it could absorb and transmit electrons really, really fast.

“Ever since graphene was isolated in 2004, researchers around the world have looked for ways to take full advantage of its many desirable properties,” said Yulin Chen, who led research at Lawrence Berkeley’s facilities, in a press release. “But the very thing that makes graphene special — the fact that it consists of a single layer of atoms ­– sometimes makes it difficult to work with, and a challenge to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, Na3Bi has its own flaws. While one of graphene’s amazing qualities is that it is stable and capable of surviving sitting out in the open at room temperature, Na3Bi isn’t. It bubbles and turns to powder when it comes in contact with air. That means there’s no way it could currently be incorporated into electronics.

But the researchers are hopeful they can develop new compounds that are more stable than Na3Bi. They are also looking into tailoring each new material for specific applications, whether it be electronics or solar cells.

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