Stretchable graphene electrode patterns transferred onto a silicon-based polymer is shown. ((Photo courtesy of Ji Hye Hong))

South Korean researchers have found a new way to make flexible, stretchable electrodes that could lead to electronics that fold or could be worn.

The research, published in the online edition of Nature, centres on graphene, a layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb orientation. Graphene's simple structure makes it an excellent conductor, and it is highly flexible. Some experts have said graphene could supplant silicon as the material of choice for electronics.

Current methods allow only for making small, micrometre-sized quantities of the material. Attempts to produce graphene in larger quantities have resulted in a significant loss of conductivity.

But researchers at the Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea, were able to make large centimetre-scale quantities of graphene that retains its electronic qualities using hydrocarbons. They broke down hydrocarbons over a plate of heated nickel to form graphene, which they cooled rapidly to produce thin layers.

Using this technique, Byung Hee Hong and his colleagues created a minutely fine layer of graphene shaped into a patterned electrode. They then etched the graphene layer onto a transparent, flexible polymer.

The malleable and transparent nature of the graphene-etched polymer could potentially result in foldable displays, flexible solar panels and a number of other electronics applications.

But Hong and his colleagues still have to work out some kinks in the new method — notably, the graphene doesn't always cover the entire surface onto which it is being copied.

Nature quoted an eminent graphene researcher as saying the practical use of graphene to make bendable electronics is still a long-term prospect.

Andre Giem, of the University of Manchester, told Nature that Kim's technique should provide the best template for creating high-quality graphene films on a large scale in the future.