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Ed. by Giamberini, Marta / Jastrzab, Renata / Liou, Juin J. / Luque, Rafael / Nawab, Yasir / Saha, Basudeb / Tylkowski, Bartosz / Xu, Chun-Ping / Cerruti, Pierfrancesco / Ambrogi, Veronica / Marturano, Valentina / Gulaczyk, Iwona

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Solution Synthesis of Atomically Precise Graphene Nanoribbons

Mikhail Shekhirev / Alexander Sinitskii
Published Online: 2017-05-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/psr-2016-0108

Abstract

Bottom-up fabrication of narrow strips of graphene, also known as graphene nanoribbons or GNRs, is an attractive way to open a bandgap in semimetallic graphene. In this chapter, we review recent progress in solution-based synthesis of GNRs with atomically precise structures. We discuss a variety of atomically precise GNRs and highlight theoretical and practical aspects of their structural design and solution synthesis. These GNRs are typically synthesized through a polymerization of rationally designed molecular precursors followed by a planarization through a cyclodehydrogenation reaction. We discuss various synthetic techniques for polymerization and planarization steps, possible approaches for chemical modification of GNRs, and compare the properties of GNRs that could be achieved by different synthetic methods. We also discuss the importance of the rational design of molecular precursors to avoid isomerization during the synthesis and achieve GNRs that have only one possible structure. Significant attention in this chapter is paid to the methods of material characterization of solution-synthesized GNRs. The chapter is concluded with the discussion of the most significant challenges in the field and the future outlook.

1 Introduction

Graphene has attracted enormous attention due to its extraordinary combination of electronic, mechanical, thermal and optical properties [1]. In recent years, graphene research has been unprecedentedly active, and the progress in fabrication and characterization of graphene has been very significant. As a result, a decade after the first experimental studies of graphene, there is an active discussion of how graphene’s properties will be implemented in a broad spectrum of applications in the near future [1a, 2]. One of the most highly praised properties of graphene, its exceptionally high charge-carrier mobilities, makes it promising for electronics applications [1a, 2, 3]. However, since graphene is a semimetal, it does not have an energy bandgap, which prevents its use in logic devices [1b, 4]. Numerous studies have focused on different ways to open a bandgap in graphene. One approach for tuning electronic properties of graphene relies on making few-nanometer-wide strips of graphene that are typically referred to as graphene nanoribbons (GNRs).

Interestingly, GNRs have been a subject of theoretical studies long before the first experiments on isolated graphene samples by Novoselov, Geim et al. in 2004 [5]. A comprehensive theoretical analysis of GNRs has been reported by Nakada et al. in 1996 [6]. In general, GNRs can have two principle edge structures – armchair (Figure 1(a)) and zigzag (Figure 1(b)) – in addition to an infinite number of mixed, chiral and disordered edges. Figure 1(a) and (b) also shows the convention on how the carbon atoms are counted across zigzag and armchair GNRs to distinguish ribbons with different widths. For example, for the armchair GNR shown in Figure 1(a), N = 10, so this GNR is typically referred to as 10-AGNR, whereas for the zigzag GNR shown in Figure 1(b), N = 5, so this is 5-ZGNR.

Electronic properties of atomically precise GNRs: (a, b) schemes of GNRs with (a) armchair and (b) zigzag edges. (c) Calculated band structures for armchair GNRs with various widths: N = 4, N = 5 and N = 6. (d, e) The variations of bandgaps of armchair GNRs as a function of width (wa) obtained using (d) tight-binding and (e) first-principle calculations. (f, g) Electronic properties of zigzag GNRs: (f) the variations of Δz0$\Delta _z^0$ and Δz1$\Delta _z^1$ as a function of the width (wz) of zigzag GNRs. Panel (g) explains Δz0$\Delta _z^0$ and Δz1$\Delta _z^1$ using the band structure of a 12-ZGNR as an example: Δz0$\Delta _z^0$ and Δz1$\Delta _z^1$ denote the direct bandgap and the energy splitting at kdz = π, respectively.Panels (a)–(c) are reproduced from Ref. [6]; panels (d)–(g) are reproduced from Ref. [7].
Figure 1.

Electronic properties of atomically precise GNRs: (a, b) schemes of GNRs with (a) armchair and (b) zigzag edges. (c) Calculated band structures for armchair GNRs with various widths: N = 4, N = 5 and N = 6. (d, e) The variations of bandgaps of armchair GNRs as a function of width (wa) obtained using (d) tight-binding and (e) first-principle calculations. (f, g) Electronic properties of zigzag GNRs: (f) the variations of Δz0 and Δz1 as a function of the width (wz) of zigzag GNRs. Panel (g) explains Δz0 and Δz1 using the band structure of a 12-ZGNR as an example: Δz0 and Δz1 denote the direct bandgap and the energy splitting at kdz = π, respectively.

It was shown that the electronic properties of armchair and zigzag GNRs are very different. Narrow armchair GNRs can exhibit substantial energy bandgaps that were predicted to be very sensitive to the ribbon’s width. Figure 1(c) shows the results of tight-binding calculations by Nakada et al. for armchair GNRs with N = 4, 5 and 6 [6]. According to the results of these calculations, 4-AGNR is a semiconductor. However, if the width of this GNR is increased by just one carbon atom, the calculated energy bandgap decreases to zero, and the resulting 5-AGNR becomes metallic. If one more carbon atom is added to this ribbon, the resulting 6-AGNR becomes a semiconductor again (Figure 1(c)). While nanoscience knows many examples of nanomaterials, such as semiconductor quantum dots [8] and plasmonic metallic nanoparticles [9], which have size-dependent physical properties, this particular example, where the change in one dimension of a nanostructure by just one atom changes physical properties in such a dramatic way, is among the most impressive ones.

Figure 1(d) further illustrates the dependence of the bandgap of N-AGNRs on their width according to the results of tight-binding calculations [7]. Depending on the N value, an N-AGNR may belong to one of three different families with N = 3p, N = 3p + 1 or N = 3p + 2, where p is a positive integer (accordingly, N-AGNRs in Figure 1(c) provide examples of nanoribbons from all these three families). For N-AGNRs with N = 3p or N= 3p + 1 the bandgap is inversely proportional to the ribbon’s width, while N-AGNRs with N = 3p + 2 are metallic (Figure 1(d)) [7]. The results may change if a different computational model is used [7, 10]. Figure 1(e) shows energy bandgaps for the same armchair GNRs that were obtained using first-principle calculations [7]. In this model, there are no metallic AGNRs, although N-AGNRs from the N = 3p + 2 family still have much lower bandgaps compared to the N-AGNRs from N = 3p and N = 3p + 1 families (Figure 1(e)). These three families of AGNRs are now well separated, and within each family the bandgap is inversely proportional to the ribbon’s width.

Depending on the calculation method used, zigzag GNRs are predicted to be either metallic or narrow bandgap semiconductors with much less-pronounced width dependence than for armchair GNRs [7] (Figure 1(f) and (g)). However, unlike armchair GNRs, they possess nonbonding edge states that were predicted to exhibit a peculiar type of magnetic ordering [6, 7, 11]. The magnetically ordered state of zigzag GNRs can be controlled by means of an external electric field [12], which may find use in spintronics, an emerging area of electronics that uses electron’s spin instead of charge for data transmission and storage [13].

Computational study of GNRs is an active area of research. Nanoribbons with different widths, geometries and edge structures have been investigated using various calculation approaches; a discussion of advances in this area can be found in the recent review papers [14]. While we do not intend to provide an in-depth review of these studies in this chapter, there are several practically important points that have to be made. On the one hand, even a brief glimpse at the results of computational studies reveals a wide breadth of properties that could be potentially realized in properly designed GNRs, including a largely tunable energy bandgap, half metallicity and nanomagnetism. On the other hand, these computational results can be used to formulate requirements to experimental approaches for the fabrication of GNRs with desired properties. For example, the following requirements should be met to achieve semiconductor characteristics in armchair GNRs (Figure 1):

  1. In order to achieve practical energy bandgaps of >0.5 eV, AGNRs should be less than 2 nm wide (Figure 1(d)).

  2. Not only should the AGNRs be narrow, but their width should be the same along their length with single atom precision. As we have already discussed, addition or subtraction of a single carbon atom from the width of a GNR can make a dramatic difference to the ribbon’s energy gap (Figure 1(c)).

  3. The ribbons should have atomically precise edges. The discussed calculations show a clear difference between GNRs with armchair and zigzag edges. Other computational studies have specifically focused on the edge disorder in graphene ribbons and showed that even a weak edge roughness could have a strong effect on the charge carrier transport in GNRs [15].

In practice, these requirements are very difficult to meet. While with the state-of-the-art electron-beam lithography it is possible to achieve a ~10 nm resolution, this is not sufficient to carve a sub-2-nm wide GNR from a graphene sheet, not to mention to achieve an atomically precise width and edge structure of a ribbon. In addition to nanofabrication [16], other top-down approaches that rely on fabrication of GNRs from larger blocks of sp2 carbon materials, such as graphite or carbon nanotubes, have been developed and tested over the last decade. These methods include sonochemical method [17], nanowire lithography [18], nanoscale cutting of graphene using nickel nanoparticles [19] or a diamond knife [20], meniscus-mask lithography [21], chemical etching of prefabricated graphene nanostructures [22] and unzipping of carbon nanotubes [23] among others. Top-down approaches typically yield GNRs with width >10 nm and have limited control over their edge structure. Although several groups demonstrated that such GNRs could exhibit an insulating state in electrical measurements, it was later argued that the observed transport bandgaps of up to ~200–400 meV [16b, 17, 18] are likely to be caused by strong localization effects due to edge disorder, rather than a true gap between valence and conduction bands [15c, 24].

Despite the great progress in the development of top-down fabrication approaches for GNRs over the last decade, none of the currently existing methods meet the requirements (1–3). This is why the 2010 paper from Müllen and Fasel groups, which demonstrated the potential of the bottom-up chemical approaches for the synthesis of narrow atomically precise GNRs, was a game changer in the field [25]. In this paper, ribbons that are only a few benzene rings wide and have atomically smooth armchair edges were synthesized on a surface of either Au(111) or Ag(111) single crystal by coupling molecular precursors into linear polyphenylenes followed by cyclodehydrogenation. This paper demonstrated that bottom-up techniques could yield narrow atomically engineered GNRs that meet the requirements (1–3) and are currently unachievable by any existing top-down approach.

Since 2010, the surface-assisted synthesis has become a popular approach for the preparation of atomically precise GNRs [26]. While the surface-assisted synthesis produces very high-quality GNRs that can serve as ideal test objects for the fundamental studies of nanoscale graphene-based materials, this approach has several important practical limitations. First of all, the surface-assisted synthesis cannot be scaled up to produce bulk quantities of atomically precise GNRs for large-scale applications. Also, GNRs prepared on a conductive Au(111) or Ag(111) single crystal cannot be directly used for device fabrication and electrical testing and thus should be somehow transferred to a dielectric substrate. Because of these limitations, the original report on the on-surface synthesis of GNRs [25] stimulated interest in the development of alternative solution-based bottom-up approaches for atomically precise GNRs, which will be the topic of this chapter.

Chemistry-wise, synthesis of a GNR from molecular precursors is the synthesis of a conjugated polymer. Examples of successful fabrications of ladder-type polymers were well known for years [27] and Müllen’s group in particular has been notably active in this area, attempting the bottom-up synthesis of “graphite ribbons” in 2000 and 2003 [28], several years before the start of the general interest in graphene in 2004 [5]. However, the ladder-type polymers are too narrow and do not show the desired properties, such as high carrier mobilities, while the early attempts to synthesize wider “graphite ribbons” showed a lack of structural uniformity. It should also be noted that carrier mobilities depend on the width of the ribbons [29]; therefore relatively wide and atomically precise GNRs are of considerable interest. Even though a number of different approaches, strategies and designs of GNR structures have been proposed and implemented since then, the field of bottom-up synthesized GNRs is still in its infancy and many fascinating discoveries and developments are yet to be made.

2 Structure of Solution-Synthesized GNRs

As previously mentioned, the edge type and the width determine the electronic properties of GNRs. Thus, one of the most attractive advantages of the bottom-up synthetic approaches is that they provide a complete control over the edge structure. Figure 2 shows some of the GNR core aromatic structures synthesized in solution. In addition to straight armchair GNRs (Figure 2(a)) [30], several types of nanoribbons, such as chevron-type GNRs (Figure 2(b)) [31], cove-type GNRs (Figure 2(c)) [32], “kinked” GNRs (Figure 2(d)) [33], necklace-like GNRs (Figure 2(e)) [34] and “chiral” or mixed GNRs (Figure 2(f)) [35], have been designed and synthesized. One particular type of bottom-up GNRs, poly-peri-naphthalene or 5-AGNR, which belongs to the N = 3p + 2 family and therefore, depending on the computational method, is predicted to either be metallic [6] or have a small bandgap [7], will not be discussed in this chapter, as the extensive studies of this and related GNRs have been recently reviewed in great detail [36]. Notably, the variety of possible structures is almost infinite, and tuning the precursor in order to achieve the optimum GNR structure for a specific application is another important advantage of the bottom-up approach. For example, chevron-type GNRs 3 were predicted to have larger exciton binding energies than straight armchair GNRs, which makes them promising for nano-optoelectronic applications [37].

Variety of core aromatic structures of atomically precise GNRs that have been synthesized by solution-based approaches: (a) straight GNRs 1 and 2, (b) chevron-type GNR 3, (c) cove-type GNRs 4 and 5, (d) “kinked” GNRs 6, 7 and 8, (e) necklace-like GNR 9, (f) chiral GNR 10. Possible solubilizing alkyl chains at the periphery of nanoribbons are omitted for the sake of clarity.
Figure 2:

Variety of core aromatic structures of atomically precise GNRs that have been synthesized by solution-based approaches: (a) straight GNRs 1 and 2, (b) chevron-type GNR 3, (c) cove-type GNRs 4 and 5, (d) “kinked” GNRs 6, 7 and 8, (e) necklace-like GNR 9, (f) chiral GNR 10. Possible solubilizing alkyl chains at the periphery of nanoribbons are omitted for the sake of clarity.

Same GNR structure can often be synthesized using different routes and strategies with their own advantages and limitations. At this point, rational design of the synthesis and choice of the precursors play a very important role for achieving high-quality nanoribbons. For example, Figure 3 (a)–(e) shows five different routes to synthesize GNRs with the core structure 1, where all methods have certain disadvantages [28b, 30a]. For example, because of the high steric hindrance in routes (a) and (b), polymerizations of the monomer 11 or the monomers 13 and 14 do not provide the corresponding polymers 12 and 17. In case of less-hindered monomers 18 and 14 (route (d)), only oligomers were found after the polymerization, which do not form the ribbon oligomer 1 upon the following cyclodehydrogenation step. When a successful polymerization is performed, such as the polymerization of monomers 20 and 21 in route (e), the formation of structural isomers during the Diels–Alder reaction results in a mixture of irregular GNRs, but not exclusively the GNR 1. Finally, Suzuki coupling of precursors 15 and 16 to form polymer 17, which was followed by the cyclodehydrogenation into GNR 1, was successfully performed (route (c)) [30a]; however, the resulting GNRs were only 12 nm long, which may be too short for device fabrication. It was argued that the synthesis of GNR 1 was not successful due to high steric hindrance, as well as due to rigid backbone of the polymers, resulting in limited solubility of the polymeric products. Alternatively, a new GNR 6 was designed and synthesized from less-hindered precursors 23 and 24 that produced a “kinked” and more soluble polymer 25. The resulting GNRs 6 were 25 nm long in contrast to 12-nm-long GNRs 1 (Figure 3(f)) [30a, 33a]. The examples in Figure 3 show that the bottom-up solution synthesis of GNRs, despite the large number of powerful tools in organic chemistry, still requires development of new synthetic approaches and routes toward high-quality nanoribbons of appreciable length.

(a–e) Representative routes to straight armchair GNR with core aromatic structure 1. (f) Scheme of synthesis of GNR 6. Solubilizing alkyl chains at the edges of the nanoribbons are omitted for the sake of clarity. Conditions: (i) Ni(COD)2, bipyridine, COD, toluene/DMF, 80°C, COD = cyclooctadiene; (ii) Pd(PPh3)4, K2CO3, 95 or 75°C; (iii) Ph2O, reflux; (iv) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2. See Refs [28b, 30a, 33a] for details.
Figure 3:

(a–e) Representative routes to straight armchair GNR with core aromatic structure 1. (f) Scheme of synthesis of GNR 6. Solubilizing alkyl chains at the edges of the nanoribbons are omitted for the sake of clarity. Conditions: (i) Ni(COD)2, bipyridine, COD, toluene/DMF, 80°C, COD = cyclooctadiene; (ii) Pd(PPh3)4, K2CO3, 95 or 75°C; (iii) Ph2O, reflux; (iv) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2. See Refs [28b, 30a, 33a] for details.

3 Synthetic Approaches Toward Atomically Precise GNRs

Several successful attempts to synthesize atomically precise GNRs in solution have been reported to date. In general, the synthesis consists of two steps: polymerization of rationally designed monomers and planarization of the resulting polymer structure to yield polyaromatic graphene molecules. The majority of the syntheses utilize Suzuki, Yamamoto or Diels–Alder polymerization reactions, and oxidative cyclodehydrogenation using FeCl3 for the planarization step.

3.1 Suzuki Coupling

The synthesis of GNR 1 (Figure 3(c)), which was discussed earlier, was one of the first successful syntheses of atomically precise GNRs. It employed Suzuki cross-coupling as a polymerization reaction [30a]. Similarly, the synthesis of “kinked” GNRs 6 with improved solubility and polymerization efficiency was also performed through Suzuki polymerization (Figure 3(f)) [33a]. Later, the synthesis of “kinked” structures was extended to wider GNRs using naphthalene diboronic ester 26 or anthracene diboronic ester 28, as shown in Figure 4(a) [33a]. Despite the successful cyclization step for the narrow version of GNRs 6, the cyclodehydrogenation reaction for naphthalene and anthracene units to form GNRs 7 and 8 was shown to be less effective with degrees of cyclization of 78% and 75%, respectively. Notably, the “kinked” GNRs were used to fabricate thin-film field-effect transistors (FETs), and wider GNRs 8, as expected, exhibited higher charge carrier mobilities.

Suzuki coupling was used to synthesize not only “kinked” GNRs but also necklace-like GNRs 9 (Figure 4(b)) [34]. Reactive sites in the precursor 30 are less hindered than in the precursor 16, but the large size of the laterally extended structure 31 and the rigidity of the poly(p-phenylene) backbone are responsible for the relatively short length (13 nm) of GNRs 9 obtained in this synthesis [34].

Synthesis of GNRs through Suzuki coupling: (a) scheme of synthesis of kinked GNRs 7 and 8. (b) Scheme of synthesis of necklace-like GNR 9. Conditions: (i) Pd(PPh3)4, K2CO3, toluene, Aliquat 336, reflux or microwave; (ii) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2, rt. See Refs [33a, 34] for details.
Figure 4:

Synthesis of GNRs through Suzuki coupling: (a) scheme of synthesis of kinked GNRs 7 and 8. (b) Scheme of synthesis of necklace-like GNR 9. Conditions: (i) Pd(PPh3)4, K2CO3, toluene, Aliquat 336, reflux or microwave; (ii) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2, rt. See Refs [33a, 34] for details.

3.2 Yamamoto Coupling

One of the problems with Suzuki cross-coupling polymerization reactions presented in Figure 4 is the need for two different monomers. This is why Yamamoto homocoupling reaction, which requires only one dihalogenated monomer, became an attractive alternative to prepare long GNR precursors.

Several synthetic procedures for GNRs that involve Yamamoto coupling were recently reported (Figure 5). Historically, the first synthesis of GNRs employing Yamamoto coupling was reported in 2012 [35]. The monomer 32 was polymerized to form polymer 33 (Figure 5(a)) in a notably more efficient way in comparison to previously discussed Suzuki-coupled polymers, and the polymer 33 was then converted to the chiral GNR 10 [35]. Later, an even wider GNR 2 with an estimated width of ~2.1 nm was attempted, starting with the monomer 34 (Figure 5(b)), but the resulting polymers were rather short and could be considered as large nanographene molecules [30a]. The nanographenes were sublimed onto a substrate in order to fabricate FET devices, which showed better results in comparison to liquid-phase deposited molecules [38].

Synthesis of GNRs through Yamamoto coupling. Conditions: (i) Ni(COD)2, bipyridine, COD, toluene/DMF, 80°C; (ii) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2, rt. See Refs [30a, 31, 35] for details.
Figure 5:

Synthesis of GNRs through Yamamoto coupling. Conditions: (i) Ni(COD)2, bipyridine, COD, toluene/DMF, 80°C; (ii) FeCl3, DCM/MeNO2, rt. See Refs [30a, 31, 35] for details.

In 2014, our group reported a gram-scale synthesis procedure for chevron-type GNRs 3 and demonstrated their high structural quality [31]. Notably, the solubilizing alkyl groups that are usually employed to improve solubility of GNRs were not attached to the aromatic core of the GNRs 3. This significantly facilitated characterization of solution-synthesized GNRs 3 using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) to visualize their atomically precise aromatic structure. Even though the absence of the solubilizing groups limited the liquid-phase processability of the nanoribbons, the Yamamoto coupling as well as the following oxidative cyclodehydrogenation were shown to be very effective [31].

3.3 Diels–Alder Reaction

In attempts to achieve more efficient polymerization, excellent results were shown for GNRs synthesized via Diels–Alder polymerization reaction [32a]. Cove-type GNR precursor 39 was synthesized using a relatively simple procedure of refluxing monomer 38 in diphenyl ether or by heating it in a melt (Figure 6 (a)). This elegant approach, which does not require any reagents other than the monomer itself to perform the polymerization, not only yielded GNRs with novel “cove-type” edges, but also provided polymer precursors 39 and GNRs 4 with lengths of over 600 nm. These GNRs are not only significantly longer than nanoribbons produced using other coupling approaches, but also long enough to serve as channels of electronic devices prepared by the standard electron-beam lithography [39]. Another attractive feature of this GNR design is the possibility of the lateral extension of nanoribbons without changing the overall chemical approach. The wider cove-type GNR 5 was synthesized using the same Diels–Alder polymerization reaction from monomer 40, see Figure 6 (b). Because of their larger width, GNRs 5 have a smaller optical bandgap of ~1.2 eV compared to ~1.9 eV for the original GNR 4 [32a]. Noncontact ultrafast terahertz photoconductivity measurements revealed high intrinsic mobility of GNRs 4 and 5 [32, 40], proving the effectiveness of the cyclodehydrogenation reaction and the high quality of both cove-type nanoribbons.

Synthesis of GNRs through Diels–Alder polymerization. Conditions: (i) Ph2O, reflux, 20–28 h or melt, 260°C–270°C, 1.5–5 h; (ii) FeCl3 (7 eq/H), DCM/MeNO2, rt, 3 days. See Ref. [32] for details.
Figure 6:

Synthesis of GNRs through Diels–Alder polymerization. Conditions: (i) Ph2O, reflux, 20–28 h or melt, 260°C–270°C, 1.5–5 h; (ii) FeCl3 (7 eq/H), DCM/MeNO2, rt, 3 days. See Ref. [32] for details.

Recently, another type of Diels–Alder-like cycloaddition reaction, aza-Diels–Alder or Povarov reaction, was proposed to synthesize atomically precise GNRs in solution (Figure 7) [41]. It is based on the synthesis of polybenzoquinoline precursor 43 from alkyne- and aldimine-modified units 42. However, the synthesis of GNR 44 is not reported yet.

Proposed scheme of synthesis of N-GNRs 44 using Povarov polymerization reaction. Conditions: (i) BF3·OEt2, chloranil, Δ. See Ref. [41] for details.
Figure 7:

Proposed scheme of synthesis of N-GNRs 44 using Povarov polymerization reaction. Conditions: (i) BF3·OEt2, chloranil, Δ. See Ref. [41] for details.

3.4 Planarization of Synthesized Polymers

The last step in the solution synthesis of GNRs is the graphitization of a 3D polymer fabricated at the polymerization step. The most common procedure is the Scholl reaction, an oxidative cyclodehydrogenation using iron (III) chloride as an oxidant and a Lewis acid. This easy procedure has shown excellent to good yields for a number of polyaromatic systems [42]. However, in some cases, it results in a mixture of partially cyclized or chlorinated products preventing its use for the synthesis of atomically precise aromatic structures [43]. A number of other cyclodehydrogenation techniques and reagent systems have been developed for the synthesis of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which could be adapted for the synthesis of GNRs if for some reason the FeCl3-based reaction does not provide a desired product at a good yield. Other possible reagents include AlCl3/NaCl [44], MoCl5 [45], dichlorodicyanobenzoquinone (DDQ)/CH3SO3H [46], CuCl2 or Cu(OTf)2/AlCl3 [47], bis(trifluoroacetoxy)iodobenzene (PIFA)/BF3·Et2O [48] and others. Notably, the choice of the reagent is important not only to achieve a product of cyclodehydrogenation at a good yield (see the example in Figure 8(a) [43a, 49]), but also to control the direction of the reaction (see the example in Figure 8(b)) [44], which could potentially be used in syntheses of new types of polyaromatic structures. More details on the Scholl reaction can be found in the recent review paper by Butenschön, Gryko et al. [43a].

Importance of reagents for cyclodehydrogenation reaction: (a) reactivity of naphthylisoquinolines under different conditions, (b) cyclization of 3-(1-Naphthyl)perylene 49 under different conditions. See Refs [43a, 44, 49] for details.
Figure 8:

Importance of reagents for cyclodehydrogenation reaction: (a) reactivity of naphthylisoquinolines under different conditions, (b) cyclization of 3-(1-Naphthyl)perylene 49 under different conditions. See Refs [43a, 44, 49] for details.

3.5 Alternative Approaches

As alternatives to the polymerization reactions described above, other polymerization techniques could also be employed, especially if the reactions fail or do not yield the desired product. For example, polymerization of monomer 51 using a Yamamoto coupling reaction was not successful, probably due to the high steric hindrance (Figure 9) [43a]. The oligomer products 52 were obtained via Ullmann coupling and purified by column chromatography. Furthermore, the following cyclodehydrogenation with FeCl3 yielded mainly chlorinated products, and a DDQ/CF3SO3H mixture was employed to achieve cove-type GNR oligomers 53.

Synthesis of cove-type GNRs 53 using Ullmann coupling. Conditions: (i) Cu, Pd(PPh3)4, DMSO, 150°C, 48 h, (ii) DDQ/DCM, 0°C, methanesulfonic acid, 1–3 h. See Ref. [43a] for details.
Figure 9:

Synthesis of cove-type GNRs 53 using Ullmann coupling. Conditions: (i) Cu, Pd(PPh3)4, DMSO, 150°C, 48 h, (ii) DDQ/DCM, 0°C, methanesulfonic acid, 1–3 h. See Ref. [43a] for details.

In addition to the concept of alkyne cyclization from Swager and coworkers [50], interesting approaches have been recently proposed for the synthesis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and GNRs from polyynes (Figure 10). The first approach is based on the controllable radical cascade reactions to form central bonds of nanoribbons, while the bonds on the periphery could be formed via oxidative dehydrogenation (Figure 10(a)) [51]. Two reactions, namely “all-exo” and “all-endo”, have been developed and tested for short oligomers (Figure 10(b) and (c)); however, long GNRs have not been synthesized yet. The second approach utilizes Cu(OTf)2-catalyzed benzannulation reaction of poly(phenylene ethynylene) precursor 56 with 2-(phenylethynyl)benzaldehyde (Figure 10(d)) to yield polymer 57 [52], which may eventually be converted to a GNR with the core structure 58 (Figure 10(e)).

Concept of the GNR synthesis from polyynes: (a–c) Synthesis through radical cascade reactions. (a) Proposed GNR synthesis through selective radical attack at the central alkyne. Comparison of (b) “all-endo” and (c) “all-exo” strategies toward the preparation of graphene ribbons. Conditions: (i) PdCl2(PPh3)2, ClAuPPh3, AgOTf, o-xylene,150°C, (ii) HSnBu3, AIBN. (d) Synthesis through benzannulation reaction. Conditions: (iii) Cu(OTf)2, CF3CO2H, CHCl3, 100°C. (e) Core aromatic structure of possible GNR. See Refs [51, 52] for details.
Figure 10:

Concept of the GNR synthesis from polyynes: (a–c) Synthesis through radical cascade reactions. (a) Proposed GNR synthesis through selective radical attack at the central alkyne. Comparison of (b) “all-endo” and (c) “all-exo” strategies toward the preparation of graphene ribbons. Conditions: (i) PdCl2(PPh3)2, ClAuPPh3, AgOTf, o-xylene,150°C, (ii) HSnBu3, AIBN. (d) Synthesis through benzannulation reaction. Conditions: (iii) Cu(OTf)2, CF3CO2H, CHCl3, 100°C. (e) Core aromatic structure of possible GNR. See Refs [51, 52] for details.

4 Chemical Modification

As discussed in the previous sections of this chapter, bottom-up synthetic approaches allow a precise control over structural parameters of GNRs, such as their width and edge structure, which define GNRs’ physical properties. Chemical modification is another important tool that can be used to alter GNRs’ properties.

Two chemical modification strategies, edge functionalization and precise substitution of carbon atoms with heteroatoms, have been realized in solution-synthesized atomically precise GNRs. These approaches showed promise not only for the modification of electronic properties of GNRs, but also for improving solubility/processability and controlled self-assembly of nanoribbons.

4.1 Nitrogen Doping

For conventional semiconductors, such as silicon, substitutional doping is one of the key approaches to fine-tune electronic properties necessary for functional devices. Random substitution of carbons with heteroatoms, such as boron or nitrogen, has also been realized in graphene [53]. In contrast, the bottom-up synthetic approaches allow to not only dope a GNR with a certain amount of heteroatoms, but also incorporate them in specific positions in the ribbon’s structure. Nitrogen-doped GNRs, which are also referred to as N-GNRs, have been considered in several theoretical studies [54], but only two types of solution-synthesized GNRs with precise nitrogen doping have been reported to date (Figure 11).

Bottom-up solution synthesis of N-doped GNRs: (a) “kinked” GNRs and (b) chevron-type GNRs. For N-GNRs 60 and 63 the positions of nitrogen atoms could vary and may also occupy positions highlighted with dotted circles.
Figure 11:

Bottom-up solution synthesis of N-doped GNRs: (a) “kinked” GNRs and (b) chevron-type GNRs. For N-GNRs 60 and 63 the positions of nitrogen atoms could vary and may also occupy positions highlighted with dotted circles.

In 2013, Jo et al. reported modification of the GNRs 7, employing 2,3-dibromo-5,6-dialkoxypyrazine molecule 59 during the Suzuki polymerization step as a nitrogen source [55]. In the resulting N-GNRs the level of doping could be controlled by changing the ratio of dibromopyrazine and dibromobenzene derivatives 59 and 23 during the synthesis (Figure 11(a)). It was shown that the nitrogen doping can tune the electronic transport behavior of the GNRs changing it from ambipolar for undoped GNR 7 to n-type upon nitrogen substitution. In the device measurements, N-doped GNRs with the highest level of nitrogen substitution (GNR 61) showed highest electron mobility values [55].

In 2014 and 2015, our group reported nitrogen doping of previously synthesized chevron-type GNRs (Figure 11(b)) [56]. Unlike in the case of “kinked” GNRs (Figure 11(a)), here the level of doping was varied by changing the amount of nitrogen substitution in the monomer, not by changing the ratio of N-doped and undoped precursors. In principle, copolymerization of monomers 36 and 62/64 should also result in random chevron-type N-GNRs, in which the average nitrogen concentration could be tuned by the ratio of N-doped and undoped precursors, but this possibility is not yet explored experimentally for solution reactions. The solution-synthesized chevron-type N-GNRs 63 and 65 were visualized by STM and characterized by a number of spectroscopic techniques. The optical properties N-GNRs 63 and 65 were similar to those of undoped chevron-type GNRs 3 [56].

Because of the solubilizing alkyl chains that effectively screen edge nitrogen atoms from the environment, incorporation of nitrogens in the “kinked” GNRs 60 and 61, while changing their electronic properties, did not significantly affect interactions between the nanoribbons. However, in the case of chevron-type N-GNRs 63 and 65, where no side alkyl chains are present, the situation is very different. In addition to slight changes in electrical properties of the nanoribbons, the nitrogen substitution triggers the hierarchical self-assembly of N-GNRs into ordered structures. The phenomenon was first observed for GNR 63 [56a] and then studied in detail using surface-assisted and solution approaches to compare the behaviors of undoped GNRs 3 and N-doped GNRs 65 (Figure 12) [56a]. On a surface of Au(111) substrate, after the thermal polymerization of the monomer 64 and cyclodehydrogenation of the resulting polymer, STM analysis reveals the formation of hydrogen-bonded assemblies of N-GNRs 65, as shown in Figure 12(a–c). In addition to the same hydrogen bonding, solution-synthesized GNRs have van der Waals and π–π interactions between the basal planes of GNRs (Figure 12(d)). These interactions ultimately result in the formation of macroscopic crystalline structures of N-GNRs, which is schematically shown in Figure 12(d). These results demonstrate that substitutional doping of GNRs could be a powerful tool to promote self-assembly of nanoribbons and eventually form new carbon nanostructures [56a].

Hierarchical self-assembly of N-doped GNRs 65: (a) STM image of the morphology of the N-GNRs on Au(111), scale bar: 10 nm, (b) close-up view of one of 2D assemblies of the N-GNRs, scale bar: 2 nm. (c) Schematic structure of laterally coordinated N-GNRs, which are offset slightly along their axes to enable hydrogen bonding between adjacent ribbons. (d) Scheme of the N-GNR self-assembly in a 3D solution environment. (e) Optical image of crystals of solution-synthesized N-GNRs, scale bar: 50 μm.Reproduced from Ref. [56a].
Figure 12:

Hierarchical self-assembly of N-doped GNRs 65: (a) STM image of the morphology of the N-GNRs on Au(111), scale bar: 10 nm, (b) close-up view of one of 2D assemblies of the N-GNRs, scale bar: 2 nm. (c) Schematic structure of laterally coordinated N-GNRs, which are offset slightly along their axes to enable hydrogen bonding between adjacent ribbons. (d) Scheme of the N-GNR self-assembly in a 3D solution environment. (e) Optical image of crystals of solution-synthesized N-GNRs, scale bar: 50 μm.

4.2 Edge Chlorination

Edge chlorination is another method of precise chemical modification of GNRs. An important advantage of this method is that it allows a post-synthetic change of the GNR structure. Edge chlorination was originally demonstrated for PAH molecules but it also works well for bottom-up solution-synthesized GNRs [57]. A scheme of the edge chlorination of a GNR 4 is shown in Figure 13. The chlorination affects electronic properties of the GNRs decreasing the optical bandgap from 1.9 eV for the pristine GNR 4 to 1.7 eV for the chlorinated GNR 66. Additionally, the edge chlorination promotes solubility of the GNRs as the edge Cl atoms induce deformation of the structure and force the GNRs to adopt non-planar geometry.

Edge chlorination of cove-type GNRs.
Figure 13:

Edge chlorination of cove-type GNRs.

5 Characterization Techniques for Solution-Synthesized GNRs

Materials characterization is one of the most important and still one of the most challenging aspects of the studies of atomically precise GNRs. Low solubility of GNRs in many cases precludes their complete structural characterization and a combination of different techniques is required to gain insights into the structure of the nanoribbons.

Several techniques can be utilized to determine the average length of solution-synthesized GNRs. Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), which is usually applied to determine masses of PAHs, has limitations for high molecular weight polymers with a broad molecular weight distribution [58]. As a result, the largest mass detected with MS does not necessarily correspond to the largest mass of a polymer. In order to estimate the molecular weight and the length of GNRs, size exclusion chromatography (SEC) of polymer precursors can be used. Typically, polymers with non-rigid core structure are analyzed against polystyrene standards, but poly(p-phenylene) standard was also suggested as a second estimate of molecular weight [32]. Although not giving absolute molecular weights, SEC measurements provide approximate values for comparison with different polyphenylene precursors. Preparative SEC or re-precipitation may also help to remove small oligomers and improve polydispersity index [32]. In order to determine absolute molecular weights of polymers, dynamic light scattering measurements could be employed [59].

When possible, liquid-phase nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy provides important structural information about polymeric precursors, GNRs and their transformations. For example, a comparison of NMR spectra of polymer 29 and GNR 8 was used to estimate the degree of the polymer cyclization (Figure 14(a)) [33a]. However, GNRs are often insoluble and solid-state NMR techniques could be employed, like in case of GNR 5 [32a]. Typically, solid-state NMR spectroscopy suffers from peak broadening and overall lower quality of spectra, providing less information than liquid-state NMR (Figure 14(b)). In many cases, synthesis of representative model PAH molecules is very helpful as they are usually suitable for conclusive characterization via conventional techniques, such as liquid-phase NMR or mass spectroscopy. For example, polyaromatic compound 10a was synthesized as a model for GNR 10 (Figure 14(c)) [35]. Since no partially fused or chlorinated products were detected after the last cyclodehydrogenation step, the same protocol was used for the synthesis of GNR 10 avoiding potential problems with the Scholl reaction, such as undesirable ring formation or chlorination.

NMR studies of solution-synthesized GNRs: (a) 1H NMR spectra of polymer 29 and GNR 8, (b) 13C NMR spectrum of GNR 5 (c) MALDI-TOF MS spectrum (left), isotopic distribution (inset) and 1H NMR spectrum (right) of PAH 10a as a model compound for GNR 10.Panel (a) is reproduced from Ref. [33a], panel (b) is reproduced from Ref. [32a], panel (c) is reproduced from Ref. [35].
Figure 14:

NMR studies of solution-synthesized GNRs: (a) 1H NMR spectra of polymer 29 and GNR 8, (b) 13C NMR spectrum of GNR 5 (c) MALDI-TOF MS spectrum (left), isotopic distribution (inset) and 1H NMR spectrum (right) of PAH 10a as a model compound for GNR 10.

STM becomes an increasingly important characterization method, as it provides a direct way to visualize the atomically precise structure of a GNR. STM is particularly helpful in case of insoluble GNRs, for which other options of characterization methods may be limited. Figure 15 shows the STM characterization of solution-synthesized chevron-type GNRs 3 [31]. Notably, STM images show a clear difference between the non-planar polymer structure and the flat GNR (Figure 15(a)). Although STM has enormous potential for the GNR research, its use for the visualization of solution-synthesized atomically precise nanoribbons is rather rare. A cost of a high-resolution STM instrument is one limiting factor, but even when the access to such piece of equipment is available, STM characterization of solution-synthesized GNRs is very challenging. This is due to the fact that a typical sample preparation involves drying a droplet of a GNR dispersion in an appropriate solvent on a conductive substrate, such as Au(111). If GNRs have poor solubility, the resulting sample will mostly contain various aggregates of nanoribbons, and finding a rare individual GNR on a substrate for STM imaging could be very difficult. Also, since the sample preparation is done in air, it inevitably results in the presence of atmospheric adsorbates and other forms of contamination on a substrate in addition to the residual solvent molecules, which further complicates imaging. Sample contamination can be seen in Figure 15(b). When GNRs are functionalized with solubilizing alkyl chains, this, on the one hand, improves dispersibility of nanoribbons, but on the other hand makes GNR structures more difficult to resolve.

STM studies of chevron-type GNRs: (a) atomic structures and corresponding STM images of a polymer 37 and GNR 3. (b) Another STM image of GNR 3. Scale bars: 3 nm.Reproduced from Ref. [31].
Figure 15:

STM studies of chevron-type GNRs: (a) atomic structures and corresponding STM images of a polymer 37 and GNR 3. (b) Another STM image of GNR 3. Scale bars: 3 nm.

Despite the difficulties with high-resolution imaging of nanoribbons, STM and other microscopy techniques, such as atomic force microscopy (AFM), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM), are used in the studies focused on the aggregation behavior of GNRs (Figure 16). Supramolecular assembly of large PAH molecules with solubilizing groups have been reported and investigated as an important premise for organic electronic devices [60]. Similarly, the assembly of extended PAHs – GNRs – also attracted a considerable attention. Depending on the structure of GNRs and alkyl chains attached to the aromatic core, GNRs show different self-assembly patterns on surfaces. For example, PAH 67 adopts columnar structure when deposited by drop-casting on a surface of highly oriented pyrolytic graphite (HOPG) (Figure 16(a)) [42d]. In the observed columnar arrangement the molecular planes are oriented perpendicular to the HOPG surface and parallel to each other, which facilitates electronic transport between PAH molecules 67 and makes these assemblies promising for electronic applications. In contrast, long cove-type GNRs 4 with bulky branched alkyl chains installed in the peripheral positions show highly ordered self-assembled monolayers on a HOPG surface (Figure 16(b)) [32a]. The branched alkyl chains prevent π-stacking between the co-adsorbed nanoribbons, which however was observed for the same GNRs with linear dodecyl chains.

Microscopy studies of solution-synthesized GNRs: (a) STM image and corresponding model of molecular arrangement (i) of necklace-type GNRs 67 (ii) on HOPG. (b) AFM image (i) of cove-type GNRs 4 (ii) on HOPG with corresponding molecular model of the GNR assembly (iii). (c) Assembly of chevron-type GNRs 3. AFM image with corresponding height profile (i), SEM (ii) and STM (iii) images of GNRs 3 (iv) deposited on mica, Si/SiO2 and Au(111) substrates, respectively. Scale bars: 500 nm (i), 200 nm (ii), 3 nm (iii), the proposed structure of a GNR “nanobelt” (iv). (d) Assembly of N-doped chevron GNRs 65. (i) TEM image of GNRs 65, showing distinct flakes, scale bar: 20 nm; (ii) TEM image of GNRs 65 near the surface, showing layered structure with a period of ~0.37 nm, scale bar: 2 nm; (iii) STM image of side-by-side aggregated GNRs 65 deposited on Au(111), scale bar: 3 nm; (iv) chemical structure of GNRs 65 and (v) scheme of side-by-side arrangement.Panel (a) is reproduced from Ref. [42d], panel (b) is reproduced from Ref. [32a], panel (c) is reproduced from Ref. [31] and panel (d) is reproduced from Ref. [56a].
Figure 16:

Microscopy studies of solution-synthesized GNRs: (a) STM image and corresponding model of molecular arrangement (i) of necklace-type GNRs 67 (ii) on HOPG. (b) AFM image (i) of cove-type GNRs 4 (ii) on HOPG with corresponding molecular model of the GNR assembly (iii). (c) Assembly of chevron-type GNRs 3. AFM image with corresponding height profile (i), SEM (ii) and STM (iii) images of GNRs 3 (iv) deposited on mica, Si/SiO2 and Au(111) substrates, respectively. Scale bars: 500 nm (i), 200 nm (ii), 3 nm (iii), the proposed structure of a GNR “nanobelt” (iv). (d) Assembly of N-doped chevron GNRs 65. (i) TEM image of GNRs 65, showing distinct flakes, scale bar: 20 nm; (ii) TEM image of GNRs 65 near the surface, showing layered structure with a period of ~0.37 nm, scale bar: 2 nm; (iii) STM image of side-by-side aggregated GNRs 65 deposited on Au(111), scale bar: 3 nm; (iv) chemical structure of GNRs 65 and (v) scheme of side-by-side arrangement.

In the case of chevron GNRs 3, which were synthesized without solubilizing alkyl chains at the edges, microscopy studies suggested formation of “nanobelts” – side-by-side arrangements of GNRs on substrates (Figure 16(c)) [31]. The “nanobelts” are one graphene layer thick, according to AFM measurements (Figure 16(c-i)), but wider than one GNR, which is shown by SEM (Figure 16(c-ii)). STM images show side-by-side arrangement of chevron GNRs (Figure 16(c-iii)), where the protrusions of one ribbon perfectly fit into the grooves of another one. With this side-by-side assembly, the GNRs form wide and long nanostructures that can be visualized by AFM and SEM; a possible structure of these “nanobelts” of GNRs 3 is shown in Figure 16(c-v).

As discussed in Section 4.1, nitrogen substitution in GNRs triggers additional mechanism of aggregation, the hydrogen bonding. In this case, TEM images reveal flake-like structures of bulk material with interlayer distance similar to the interplanar distance in graphite, 0.34 nm (Figure 16(d-i,ii)) [56a]. The flakes consist of N-GNRs 65 that are arranged in a side-by-side fashion (see STM image in Figure 16(d-iii)), but in this case the convex elbows of adjacent GNRs project toward each other as shown in Figure 16(d-v).

Since solution methods allow synthesis of atomically precise nanoribbons in appreciable quantities, GNRs can often be characterized by various spectroscopic techniques, such as X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), UV-vis absorption spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy. These methods are often helpful to confirm the efficiency of the synthetic procedure and assess the structural quality of GNRs.

XPS is widely used in the studies of graphene, graphene oxide and related materials [61]. For example, in case of graphene oxide, i.e. oxidized graphene sheets with hydroxyl and epoxy groups at the basal planes and carboxyl and carbonyl groups at the edges [61a, 62], XPS can be used to determine elemental composition and coordination of carbons and oxygens and thus estimate the abundance of different functional groups. Similarly, XPS can be helpful for the characterization of heteroatom-substituted GNRs. As an example, Figure 17(a) shows XPS spectra for pristine chevron-type GNRs 3 and nitrogen-doped chevron N-GNRs 65. The GNR 3 exhibits only one component in the C1s spectrum, which corresponds to the sp2 carbons, and, as expected, nitrogen doping introduces additional peaks in the N1s and C1s regions of the XPS spectrum of N-GNRs 65 (Figure 17(a)).

Spectroscopic characterization of solution-synthesized GNRs. (a) Comparison of XPS survey spectra of GNRs 3 (left) and N-GNRs 65 (right). Insets show the C1s and N1s regions. (b) Comparison of FTIR spectra of polymer 41 and cove-type GNR 5. (c) Raman spectra of chevron-type GNR 3 (top) and “kinked” GNR 8 (bottom). The arrows in the inset in the top panel show small peaks around D and G bands. (d) UV-vis absorbance (Abs) and photoluminescence (PL) intensity plotted on the same scale for undoped GNRs 3 and nitrogen-doped GNRs 65 crystals. The vertical dashed line, corresponding to a photon energy of 1.82 eV, represents the estimated energy of the (0-0) transition in both GNRs.Panels (a) and (d) are reproduced from Ref. [56a], panel (b) is reproduced from Ref. [32a] and panel (c) is reproduced from Refs [66] (top) and [33a] (bottom).
Figure 17:

Spectroscopic characterization of solution-synthesized GNRs. (a) Comparison of XPS survey spectra of GNRs 3 (left) and N-GNRs 65 (right). Insets show the C1s and N1s regions. (b) Comparison of FTIR spectra of polymer 41 and cove-type GNR 5. (c) Raman spectra of chevron-type GNR 3 (top) and “kinked” GNR 8 (bottom). The arrows in the inset in the top panel show small peaks around D and G bands. (d) UV-vis absorbance (Abs) and photoluminescence (PL) intensity plotted on the same scale for undoped GNRs 3 and nitrogen-doped GNRs 65 crystals. The vertical dashed line, corresponding to a photon energy of 1.82 eV, represents the estimated energy of the (0-0) transition in both GNRs.

FTIR spectroscopy is also a very informative tool to investigate the efficiency of the last cyclodehydrogenation step of the synthesis. For example, the successful transformation of polymer 41 into GNR 5 was confirmed through the comparison of their FTIR spectra (Figure 17(b)) [32a]. The strong attenuation of the signal triad from aromatic C–H stretching vibrations, the disappearance of out-of-plane C–H deformation bands, as well as the band appearing at 863 cm–1 (the band from the aromatic C–H moiety at the cove) all support the successful conversion of the polymer 41 to atomically precise GNR 5.

Raman spectroscopy is one of the most important characterization techniques in graphene research [63], as it could be used to study the number and orientation of layers, the edge type, disorder, doping and chemical functionalization. While the Raman spectra of graphene samples are typically dominated by D, G and 2D bands, the most intense lines around 1,300, 1,600 and 2,700 cm–1, respectively, the spectra of low-dimensional graphene materials, PAH molecules and GNRs, are usually much more complex and exhibit fine structures of smaller peaks. The positions and intensities of these peaks can often be accurately predicted using density functional theory (DFT) simulations [64]. However, the fine structures could only be observed for high-quality GNRs, as with increasing concentration of defects, nanoribbons become qualitatively similar to other disordered carbon nanomaterials, such as carbon black, amorphous carbon and graphene oxide, which have only very broad D and G bands in their Raman spectra [61a, 65]. An example of a Raman spectrum of a solution-synthesized GNR 3 is shown in Figure 17(c); smaller bands around most intense D and G bands are shown by the arrows in the inset. Additional bands were also experimentally observed for other types of GNRs, such as cove-type GNR 4 [32a, 66]. The number and the positions of the side bands are characteristic for a particular nanoribbon structure, and the experimental observation of the fine structure in a Raman spectrum could be considered as an evidence for the high structural quality of synthesized GNRs. As shown in Figure 17(c), for GNR 3 the number and the positions of the side bands agree well with the spectrum obtained by DFT simulations. On the other hand, for a number of solution-synthesized GNRs Raman spectra exhibit only broad D and G bands; an example of such spectrum is shown in Figure 17(c) for a “kinked” GNR 8 [33a].

Spectroscopic techniques can be used to probe not only the structure of GNRs, but also their electronic properties. UV-vis absorption spectroscopy is often used to estimate optical bandgaps of solution-synthesized GNRs. However, the shape of an absorption spectrum may strongly depend on the measurement conditions, such as the solvent, concentration of GNRs and the temperature, as the aggregation of GNRs gives rise to excitonic effects [67]. Therefore, in order to assess electronic properties of GNRs it may be useful to combine UV-vis spectroscopy with other techniques, such as scanning tunneling spectroscopy (STS) or photoluminescence (PL) spectroscopy. For example, PL spectroscopy can also be used to estimate a bandgap of nanoribbons, as shown in Figure 17(d) for GNRs 3 and 65 [56a]. Very interesting results can also be obtained for atomically precise GNRs using ultrafast THz photoconductivity measurements. Despite the progress in the device fabrication and several reports on GNR-based FETs [33a, 55, 68], study of the intrinsic electronic properties of GNRs via transport measurements is still challenging. The THz spectroscopy provides a straightforward and noninvasive approach to evaluate the photoconductivity within individual GNRs on ultrashort timescales [32, 40].

6 Challenges in Solution-Based Synthesis of GNRs

The field of atomically precise GNRs is still in its infancy and there is still a long way before it will reach the point when a bottom-up synthesis of all-carbon electronic circuits will become a reality. However, there are a number of immediate problems to solve, including limited solubility of solution-synthesized GNRs and the development of more effective chemical routes toward high-quality GNRs. On the other hand, these synthetic challenges might be considered as an opportunity for new and fascinating developments.

6.1 Solubility

High lateral extension and length of nanoribbons are two very important structural parameters of solution-synthesized GNRs for practical applications. However, increasing aromatic core of GNRs results in stronger π–π interactions, which in practice leads to insolubility of a material. Reduced solubility of GNRs complicates their synthesis and nullifies one of the advantages of the solution-based methods, a liquid-phase processing of nanoribbons for fabrication of functional devices.

One of the most common ways to improve solubility and liquid-phase processability of GNRs is based on the attachment of alkyl chains to the periphery of molecules. This concept was successfully applied to solubilize large PAHs, such as hexabenzocoronene [60, 69], and was also used in many designs of solution-synthesized GNRs [70]. For example, in cove-type GNRs 4 the installed alkyl chains on the periphery significantly enhanced dispersability of nanoribbons, which made possible further deposition of the GNRs on different substrates, materials characterization and fabrication of FETs and chemical sensors [68, 71].

Despite the efficiency of alkyl chains, it was argued that the solubilizing groups may affect packing of the molecules, reduce electrical contacts between nanoribbons in bulk and result in inferior properties of GNR-based materials [67]. Thus, development of other approaches to improve solubility of GNRs is very important.

An interesting approach was developed to reduce the aggregation of the large PAH molecule 68, which employs tert-butyl groups introduced in the indentations of the “cove-type” edge structure (Figure 18(a)) [72]. These groups introduce a distortion into the planar structure of the PAH, suppressing aggregation and improving solubility. The same concept was partially adopted for the synthesis of elongated homologues of PAH 68 [42d], as well as for the edge-chlorinated GNRs 65 (Figure 18(b)). With further development, synthesis of non-planar GNRs with improved solubility might be another advantage of solution bottom-up syntheses over the surface-assisted techniques.

Non-planar polyaromatic structures with improved solubility.
Figure 18:

Non-planar polyaromatic structures with improved solubility.

A number of techniques to improve solubility of bottom-up synthesized GNRs could also be learned from graphene research. For example, some methods of dispersing graphenes in strong acids [73], appropriate organic solvents [74], surfactant-stabilized aqueous solutions [75] and other media [76] could be potentially adapted for processing and further investigation of solution-synthesized GNRs.

Overall, the synthesis of GNRs with improved solubility, as well as the development of controlled self-assembly strategies for GNRs to form 1D, 2D and 3D functional materials, appear to be promising areas of research in polyaromatic materials in general and GNRs in particular [77].

6.2 Isomerization

Clearly, isomerization is highly undesirable during the GNR synthesis. As it leads to a number of different final structures, isomerization essentially breaks the idea of atomically precise GNRs. Thus, the rational design of monomers and the use of appropriate chemistries to avoid the formation of isomers are very important.

We have already discussed several examples of isomerization problems. In one example, isomerization during the synthesis of the GNR 1 by Diels–Alder polymerization reaction from precursors 20 and 21 resulted in a random mixture of three regioisomeric repeating units (Figure 3(e)). Even though the following cyclodehydrogenation provided a graphitized polymer, the atomically precise synthesis was not possible with this design of monomer structures. In another example, previously discussed “kinked” GNRs 7 and 8 are also subject to isomerization. Rotation along single carbon–carbon bonds could result in rather irregular aromatic structures 69 and 70 after the cyclodehydrogenation step in addition to the proposed GNRs 7 or 8 (Figure 19(b) and (c)). Notably, the free rotation in the case of phenyl-based GNR 6 is not a problem as the cyclization is possible only for one position (Figure 19(a)). This isomerization could explain the reduced degree of cyclodehydrogenation for wider GNRs in comparison to GNR 6 [33a].

(a–c) Single-bond rotation as a reason for isomerization of bottom-up solution-synthesized GNRs, (d) use of blocking groups to prevent the formation of an undesired structure.
Figure 19:

(a–c) Single-bond rotation as a reason for isomerization of bottom-up solution-synthesized GNRs, (d) use of blocking groups to prevent the formation of an undesired structure.

The isomerization could be avoided with proper designs of the GNR precursors. One way to solve the problem is to use substituents in order to direct the desired bond formation and block the unwanted ones [78]. For example, alkyl chains on the periphery of the polymer precursor 39, in addition to improved solubility, also serve as blocking groups to prevent isomerization during the cyclodehydrogenation step (Figure 19(d)).

In addition to design problems, isomerization could also happen during the last cyclodehydrogenation step. Rearrangements in the Scholl reaction were reported for some polyphenylenes [79], making synthesis of some structures even more challenging. Related to the problem, complete cyclization and planarization of some structures are not possible, as the reaction yields a mixture of partially cyclized or chlorinated products [43a].

One of the ways to overcome the problems of the Scholl reaction could be the use of a surface-assisted cyclodehydrogenation step. Combination of solution-based and surface-assisted methods has a number of advantages, utilizing the best of both techniques. On the one hand, the solution synthesis is more versatile and flexible, and it is possible to synthesize structures that cannot be synthesized on surface. Also, some solution-based polymerization techniques are more effective than on-surface polymerizations, providing access to longer polymers. Yet, the use of a surface-assisted thermal cyclization may help to avoid some solution-based cyclization problems. After the cyclization, the resulting GNRs could be transferred to other substrates using transfer techniques well established in graphene research [80].

7 Summary and Future Outlook

Over the last few years there has been a great progress in the field of atomically precise GNRs. Several synthetic strategies that we have reviewed in this chapter made a considerable number of different types of GNRs available for materials studies. Because of their small size and proneness to aggregation, solution-synthesized GNRs are difficult to characterize. Yet, there has been a significant progress in the materials characterization of GNRs, which resulted in better understanding of their properties.

As the field of solution-synthesis of atomically precise GNRs will grow, future studies will likely focus on the following research topics. While we reviewed a number of examples of solution syntheses of atomically precise GNRs with various edge types (Figure 2), none of these examples showed a solution synthesis of GNRs with pure zigzag edges, which are predicted to show interesting electronic and magnetic properties [11d, 12]. Therefore, at the present, the solution synthesis of zigzag GNRs appears to be one of the most important challenges in the field. Despite the significant progress in the studies of acenes, which could be considered as the narrowest type of ZGNRs [81], and recent reports on the surface-assisted synthesis of certain ZGNRs [70], the development of a versatile solution-based approach for ZGNRs remains a formidable challenge.

In addition to ZGNRs, GNRs with non-six-membered rings, such as five- or seven-membered rings, integrated into the structure in atomically precise fashion, could also be very interesting. In recent years, a significant progress in the synthesis of PAHs with seven- and eight- membered rings has been shown [70], and some of these approaches may be potentially adapted for the synthesis of GNRs with distorted structures.

Doping of GNRs with heteroatoms has also shown promise for tuning electronic properties of GNRs, as well as triggering their self-assembly [56a]. As we discuss in this chapter, so far the reported examples of solution-synthesized nanoribbons are limited to nitrogen-doped GNRs. Therefore, the development of solution-based approaches for GNRs doped with other elements, such as boron, could be an interesting research direction. Further studies focused on varying concentration of heteroatoms and their positions in a GNR structure are very important for understanding the effect of substitutional doping on GNR properties.

Also of great interest are the optimization of the existing polymerization techniques and the development of new approaches to achieve longer polymers. So far, Diels–Alder polymerization has shown very promising results for the synthesis of longitudinally extended GNRs without any additional catalyst [32a]. From this prospective, other cycloaddition reactions and radical polymerization techniques could be found practical for facile and effective synthesis of longer GNRs with novel structures. Furthermore, post-synthetic treatment of GNRs and their edge-modification is a promising area of research for fine-tuning GNRs’ optoelectronic properties and self-assembly behavior.

Finally, while GNRs are expected to be relevant for a number of applications, such as organic electronics and photovoltaics, there is still a very limited number of reports where solution-synthesized GNRs are used in device studies. As the number of available GNRs grows and their structural quality improves, more examples of GNR-based devices will be reported. A significant progress in the device fabrication will be impossible without deeper understanding of the aggregation behavior of solution-synthesized GNRs, as well as the development of effective approaches for GNR self-assembly, which means that these research topics are very important for this growing field.

Acknowledgement

This article is also available in: Muellen, Feng, Chemistry of Carbon Nanostructures. De Gruyter (2016), isbn 978-3-11-028450-8.

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Published Online: 2017-05-16


Citation Information: Physical Sciences Reviews, Volume 2, Issue 5, 20160108, ISSN (Online) 2365-659X, ISSN (Print) 2365-6581, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/psr-2016-0108.

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