Liquid Exfoliation of Layered Materials

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Science  21 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6139, 1226419
DOI: 10.1126/science.1226419

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Structured Abstract


Since at least 400 C.E., when the Mayans first used layered clays to make dyes, people have been harnessing the properties of layered materials. This gradually developed into scientific research, leading to the elucidation of the laminar structure of layered materials, detailed understanding of their properties, and eventually experiments to exfoliate or delaminate them into individual, atomically thin nanosheets. This culminated in the discovery of graphene, resulting in a new explosion of interest in two-dimensional materials.

Layered materials consist of two-dimensional platelets weakly stacked to form three-dimensional structures. The archetypal example is graphite, which consists of stacked graphene monolayers. However, there are many others: from MoS2 and layered clays to more exotic examples such as MoO3, GaTe, and Bi2Se3. These materials display a wide range of electronic, optical, mechanical, and electrochemical properties. Over the past decade, a number of methods have been developed to exfoliate layered materials in order to produce monolayer nanosheets. Such exfoliation creates extremely high-aspect-ratio nanosheets with enormous surface area, which are ideal for applications that require surface activity. More importantly, however, the two-dimensional confinement of electrons upon exfoliation leads to unprecedented optical and electrical properties.

Embedded Image

Liquid exfoliation of layered crystals allows the production of suspensions of two-dimensional nanosheets, which can be formed into a range of structures. (A) MoS2 powder. (B) WS2 dispersed in surfactant solution. (C) An exfoliated MoS2 nanosheet. (D) A hybrid material consisting of WS2 nanosheets embedded in a network of carbon nanotubes.


An important advance has been the discovery that layered crystals can be exfoliated in liquids. There are a number of methods to do this that involve oxidation, ion intercalation/exchange, or surface passivation by solvents. However, all result in liquid dispersions containing large quantities of nanosheets. This brings considerable advantages: Liquid exfoliation allows the formation of thin films and composites, is potentially scaleable, and may facilitate processing by using standard technologies such as reel-to-reel manufacturing.

Although much work has focused on liquid exfoliation of graphene, such processes have also been demonstrated for a host of other materials, including MoS2 and related structures, layered oxides, and clays. The resultant liquid dispersions have been formed into films, hybrids, and composites for a range of applications.


There is little doubt that the main advances are in the future. Multifunctional composites based on metal and polymer matrices will be developed that will result in enhanced mechanical, electrical, and barrier properties. Applications in energy generation and storage will abound, with layered materials appearing as electrodes or active elements in devices such as displays, solar cells, and batteries. Particularly important will be the use of MoS2 for water splitting and metal oxides as hydrogen evolution catalysts. In addition, two-dimensional materials will find important roles in printed electronics as dielectrics, optoelectronic devices, and transistors.

To achieve this, much needs to be done. Production rates need to be increased dramatically, the degree of exfoliation improved, and methods to control nanosheet properties developed. The range of layered materials that can be exfoliated must be expanded, even as methods for chemical modification must be developed. Success in these areas will lead to a family of materials that will dominate nanomaterials science in the 21st century.

Furthering Exfoliation

In addition to graphene, a wide range of layered materials, including oxides, chalcogenides, and clays are of interest because of their optical, electrical, and mechanical properties. While many methods can be used to cleave layered sheets from the bulk material, they are difficult to scale up. Liquid exfoliation routes may hold the best promise for making materials in large quantities. Nicolosi et al. (p. 1226419) review progress in developing exfoliation routes, both aqueous and nonaqueous for a wide range of starting materials.


Not all crystals form atomic bonds in three dimensions. Layered crystals, for instance, are those that form strong chemical bonds in-plane but display weak out-of-plane bonding. This allows them to be exfoliated into so-called nanosheets, which can be micrometers wide but less than a nanometer thick. Such exfoliation leads to materials with extraordinary values of crystal surface area, in excess of 1000 square meters per gram. This can result in dramatically enhanced surface activity, leading to important applications, such as electrodes in supercapacitors or batteries. Another result of exfoliation is quantum confinement of electrons in two dimensions, transforming the electron band structure to yield new types of electronic and magnetic materials. Exfoliated materials also have a range of applications in composites as molecularly thin barriers or as reinforcing or conductive fillers. Here, we review exfoliation—especially in the liquid phase—as a transformative process in material science, yielding new and exotic materials, which are radically different from their bulk, layered counterparts.

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