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Splitting materials into sheets just one atom thick could lead to new electronic and energy storage technologies, say scientists.

The international team of researchers say they have invented a versatile way to create one atom thick 'nanosheets' from a range of layered materials, using ultrasonic pulses and common solvents.

The new method is simple, cheap, fast, and could be scaled up to work on an industrial scale, the scientists claim in a report of their work published in the journal Science.

The research adds to previous studies by two Russian-born scientists, who last year won the Nobel Prize for physics for their work on graphene, a form of carbon that is just one atom thick and yet 100 times stronger than steel.

"Because of its extraordinary electronic properties graphene has been getting all the attention ... as physicists hope that it might one day compete with silicon in electronics," says Valeria Nicolosi of Britain's Oxford University , who led the study with Jonathan Coleman of Ireland's Trinity College Dublin .

"But in fact there are hundreds of other layered materials that could enable us to create powerful new technologies."

Coleman says the new materials this team had created - which include boron nitride, molybdenum disulfide, and bismuth telluride - have chemical and electronic properties that make them suitable for use in new electronic devices, super-strong composite materials and energy generation and storage.
Creating energy from 'waste'

"Of the many possible applications of these new nanosheets, perhaps the most important are as thermoelectric materials," he says.

Coleman says the materials could for example be made into devices that generate electricity from waste heat lost from places like gas, oil or coal-fired power plants, which lose between 50 and 70 per cent of the energy they produce in waste heat.

"The development of efficient thermoelectric devices would allow some of this waste heat to be recycled cheaply and easily," says Coleman.

Scientists have been trying for decades to create nanosheets from these kinds of materials, because arranging them in atom-thick layers enables their unusual electronic and thermoelectric properties to be unlocked, they say.

But all previous methods were very time consuming and laborious, and the resulting materials were fragile and not suitable for most applications.

"Our new method offers low-costs, a very high yield and a very large throughput - within a couple of hours, and with just 1 milligram of material, billions and billions of one-atom-thick graphene-like nanosheets can be made at the same time from a wide variety of exotic layered materials," says Nicolosi.

These new materials could also be used in next generation batteries known as "supercapacitors", which can deliver energy thousands of times faster than standard batteries and could vastly improve technologies such as electric cars.

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