Synthesis of Water Soluble Graphene
Yongchao Si and Edward T. Samulski*
Department of Chemistry, UniVersity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599
Received February 28, 2008; Revised Manuscript Received April 30, 2008
A facile and scalable preparation of aqueous solutions of isolated, sparingly sulfonated graphene is reported.13C NMR and FTIR spectra
films of graphene (1250 S/m) relative to similarly prepared graphite (6120 S/m) implies that an extended conjugated sp2network is restored
in the water soluble graphene.
Recently characterized as “the thinnest material in our
universe”,1graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of hexago-
nally arrayed sp2-bonded carbon atoms, promises a diverse
range of applications from composite materials to quantum
dots.2–7However, just as with other newly discovered
allotropes of carbon (fullerenes and single-wall nanotubes),
material availability and processability will be the rate-
limiting steps in the evaluation of putative applications of
graphene. For graphene, that availability is encumbered by
having to surmount the high cohesive van der Waals energy
(5.9 kJ mol-1carbon)8adhering graphitic sheets to one
another. Herein, we describe a facile and scalable preparation
of aqueous solutions of isolated, sparingly sulfonated graphene
sheets starting from oxidized graphite. The measured electri-
cal conductivity of contiguous films of graphene prepared
by evaporation of an aqueous solution implies that the
extensive conjugated sp2carbon network is restored in the
water soluble graphene.
Graphene was initially isolated by mechanical exfoliation,
peeling off the top surface of small mesas of pyrolytic
graphite,2,5a method which is not suitable for large-scale
application. More recently, single sheets of graphene oxide
were chemically reduced to graphene after deposition on a
silicon substrate,9,10again a method that lends itself to limited
applications. Exfoliation of graphite oxidized with strong
acids either by rapid thermal expansion11or by ultrasonic
dispersion12,13is one approach to obtain (functionalized)
graphene oxide in bulk. The oxidation chemistry is similar
to that used to functionalize single-wall carbon nanotubes
(SWNTs)14–16and yields a variety of oxygen functionalities
(sOH, sOs, and sCOOH) primarily at “defect” sites on
SWNT ends. For sufficiently strong oxidizing agents, func-
tionalized defects were also created on the SWNT wall
surfaces.17Therefore, independent of the exfoliation mechan-
ics, graphene oxide prepared from oxidized graphite includes
significant oxygen functionality11and defects so the associ-
ated structural and electronic perturbations caused by oxida-
tion must be repaired to recover the unique properties of
graphene. These perturbations can be superficially amelio-
rated with “passivation chemistry,” for example, reacting
graphene oxide with amines,12but the resulting materials are
not expected to exhibit the electronic attributes of graphene
because of residual (passivated) defects.
Ideally graphene oxide must be rigorously reduced after
exfoliation to recover the desirable properties of graphene.
To that end, polymer-coated “graphitic nanoplatelets” were
obtained by reducing exfoliated graphite oxide in the
presence of poly(sodium-4 styrene sulfonate) giving in-
triguing composite materials.6,13However, the presence of
the polymeric dispersing agent in graphene composite may
be undesirable for some applications. Reduction of exfoliated
graphite oxide in the presence of ammonia can lead to the
graphene nanosheets with limited water solubility (<0.5 mg/
mL).18We report a chemical route to aqueous solutions of
isolated graphene sheets by reducing graphene oxide in two
stages. Our methodology removes residual oxygen function-
ality and introduces sulfonic acid groups in partially reduced
graphene oxide in a controlled way. The charged sSO3-
units prevent the graphitic sheets from aggregating in solution
after the final reduction stage of the graphene oxide thereby
yielding isolated sheets of lightly sulfonated graphene with
improved water solubility.
We use graphite oxide prepared by oxidizing graphite
flakes with acid19as the starting material for the preparation
of graphene. Like graphite, the oxidation product has a
layered morphology with -OH and >O functionality
disrupting the hexagonal carbon basal planes on the interior
of multilayered stacks of graphene oxide; -COOH and
carbonyl groups decorate the periphery of the planes.
Correspondingly, graphite oxide exhibits an increased inter-
* Corresponding author. E-mail: email@example.com. Telephone: (919) 962-1561.
Fax: (919) 962-2388.
Vol. 8, No. 6
10.1021/nl080604h CCC: $40.75
Published on Web 05/23/2008
2008 American Chemical Society
layer spacing (from 0.34 nm in graphite to >0.6 nm in
graphite oxide)20thereby weakening the van der Waals forces
between layers and enabling facile exfoliation via sonication.
The resulting highly functionalized graphene oxide forms
stable dispersions in water. However, if the oxygen func-
tionality is removed to yield graphene, the graphene sheets
lose their water dispersability, aggregate, and eventually
precipitate. In order to overcome this, we judiciously
introduce a small number of p-phenyl-SO3H groups into the
graphene oxide before it is fully reduced and the resulting
graphene remains soluble in water and does not aggregate.
We prepare graphene from graphene oxide in three steps:
(1) prereduction of graphene oxide with sodium borohydride
at 80 °C for 1 h to remove the majority of the oxygen
functionality; (2) sulfonation with the aryl diazonium salt
of sulfanilic acid in an ice bath for 2 h; and (3) postreduction
with hydrazine (100 °C for 24 h) to remove any remaining
oxygen functionality. The lightly sulfonated graphene can
be readily dispersed in water at reasonable concentrations
(2 mg/mL) in the pH range of 3-10. Isolated graphene sheets
persist in the mixture of water and organic solvents including
methanol, acetone, acetonitrile, thus making it possible to
further modify its surface for applications such as reinforce-
ments in composites. The sulfonation level is stoichiomet-
rically controlled to enable water solubility with minimal
impact on the unique properties of graphene. Prereduction
(step 1) is necessary both to achieve complete reduction (in
step 3) and to enable the sulfonation reaction (step 2) by
increasing the size of sp2-carbon domains for reaction with
the aryl diazonium salt. For example, elemental analysis
shows that after prereduction of graphene oxide one can,
via the diazonium salt reaction, achieve a S:C ratio of 1:35,
whereas only a 1:148 ratio is possible using unreduced
graphene oxide under the same reaction conditions. After
sulfonation, the addition of more sodium borohydride (in step
3) immediately precipitates graphitic carbon. However, when
hydrazine was used in the final reduction step, there was no
sign of precipitation even after reacting for 48 h at 100 °C.
Elemental analysis confirms the presence of nitrogen in
graphene with a N:C ratio of 1:31. The lightly sulfonated
graphene remains as single carbon sheets in water after the
sulfonated graphene oxide is reacted with hydrazine for 24 h.
In contrast, the reduction of graphene oxide with hydrazine
under the similar conditions leads to irreversible aggregation
and precipitation of graphitic sheets in water.13,18This
confirms the presence of negatively charged sSO3-units
which in turn, impart sufficient electrostatic repulsion to keep
carbon sheets separated during reduction.
We have measured the zeta potentials of our aqueous
dispersions of graphene and graphene oxide in an effort to
corroborate Li et al.’s18rationale for the stability of such
dispersions, that is, electrostatic stabilization of graphene
sheets. Similar to graphene oxide, the lightly sulfonated
graphene is also negatively charged. We find negative zeta
potentials of 55-60 mV for our graphene (pH ) 6, prepared
by thoroughly rinsing with water until the pH is close to
neutral); for graphene oxide, we find 60-70 mV (negative).
These ranges of zeta potentials are ideal for stabilizing
conventional colloidal particles;21ASTM defines colloids
with zeta potentials higher than 40 mV (negative or positive)
to have “good stability.” Our aqueous dispersion of graphene
show good stability: There is no sign of coagulation of
graphene sheets after more than one month.
Solid state13C MAS NMR reflects the extent of graphene
oxide reduction. Figure 1 shows13C NMR spectra of graphite
oxide, sulfonated graphene oxide (GO-SO3H) and graphene,
respectively. Two distinct resonances dominate the spectrum
of graphite oxide: The resonance centered at 134 ppm
corresponds to unoxidized sp2carbons; the 60 ppm resonance
is a result of epoxidation, and the 70 ppm shoulder is from
hydroxylated carbons.20,22,23For graphite oxide with a low
degree of oxidation, the latter resonances overlap, and a weak
broad resonance corresponding to carbonyl carbons is
observed at 167 ppm. After prereduction, the 60 ppm peak
disappears, and the 70 ppm and 167 ppm resonances weaken
significantly. The peak at 134 ppm shifts to 123 ppm because
of the change in the chemical environment of the sp2
carbons.23After the final reduction step to yield lightly
sulfonated graphene, the resonances at 70 ppm and 167 ppm
disappear; the small peak emerging at 140 ppm is attributed
to carbons in the covalently attached phenyl-SO3H groups;
the resonance is not so obvious in the GO-SO3H spectrum.
The NMR results are corroborated by attenuated total
reflectance (ATR) FTIR spectra. The spectrum of graphite
oxide illustrates the presence of CsO (νC-Oat 1060 cm-1),
Figure 1. Solid state13C MAS NMR spectra (90.56 MHz; 9.4k
rpm) of graphite oxide, sulfonated graphene oxide (GO-SO3H) and
graphene; *indicates spinning side bands.
Figure 2. ATR-FTIR spectra of graphite oxide, sulfonated graphene
oxide (GO-SO3H) and graphene.
Nano Lett., Vol. 8, No. 6, 2008
CsOsC (νC-O-C at 1250 cm-1), CsOH (νC-OH at 1365
cm-1), and CdO in carboxylic acid and carbonyl moieties
(νCdOat 1720 cm-1).20,22,24,25The peak at 1600 cm-1may
be from skeletal vibrations of unoxidized graphitic domains,25
domains apparent in the13C NMR spectrum of graphite
oxide. After prereduction and sulfonation, the peaks at 1060
cm-1, 1250 cm-1, and 1365 cm-1are severely attenuated in
the sulfonated graphene oxide (GO-SO3H) spectrum. The
peaks at 1175 cm-1, 1126 cm-1,and 1040 cm-1(two νS-O
and one νs-phenyl) confirm the presence of a sulfonic acid
group, and the peaks at 1007 cm-1(νC-Hin-plane bending)
and 830 cm-1(out-of-plane hydrogen wagging) are charac-
teristic vibrations of a p-disubstituted phenyl group24. After
the final reduction with hydrazine, elemental analysis shows
that there is a slight loss of sulfonic acid groups after
reduction, for example, decreasing the S:C ratio from 1:41
to 1:46. The absence of the peaks at 1365 cm-1, 1250 cm-1,
and 1060 cm-1indicates the epoxide and the hydroxyl groups
attached to the basal graphene layer have been removed.
There is FTIR evidence of CdO (1720 cm-1) even after a
48 h reaction with hydrazine. However, since the carbonyl
groups are believed to come from acid moieties localized
on the edge of graphene sheets23, their presence should not
deleteriously impact the electronic properties of graphene.
AFM images confirm that evaporated dispersions of
graphene oxide and graphene are comprised of isolated
graphitic sheets (Figure 3a,b). The graphene oxide has lateral
dimensions of several micrometers and a thickness of 1 nm,
which is characteristic of a fully exfoliated graphene oxide
sheet.6,13After the final reduction step, the lateral dimensions
of graphene range from several hundred nanometers to
several micrometers. Undulations of graphene’s surface dried
on the mica substrate increases its apparent thickness (1.2
nm) measured by AFM. Graphene oxide sheets with the
lateral size up to 10 µm were observed in Figure 3c;
overexposure to sonication causes the defects (small holes)
in the sheets. The decrease in lateral dimensions of graphene
sheets is also attributed to excessive sonication during each
step of the preparation of graphene. With well-controlled
sonication, graphene sheets with the size comparable to those
manually peeled off the top surface of small mesas of
pyrolytic graphite could be obtained. Figure 3d shows a TEM
image of a single graphene sheet. It appears transparent and
is folded over on one edge with isolated small fragments of
graphene on its surface. These observations indicate the
water-soluble graphene is similar to single graphene sheets
peeled from pyrolytic graphite (0.9 nm thick).5
The electrical conductivity is perhaps the best indicator
of the extent to which graphite oxide has been reduced to
graphene. A thin evaporated film (∼3 µm thick) of water-
soluble graphene (graphite oxide, sulfonated graphene oxide,
and graphite flakes) was prepared on a glass slide. Before
electrical conductivity measurements, the film is dried at 120
Figure 3. Images of isolated graphene oxide and graphene sheets. (a) AFM image of graphene oxide sheets on freshly cleaved mica, the
height difference between two arrows is 1nm, indicating a single graphene oxide sheet; (b) AFM image of water-soluble graphene on
freshly cleaved mica; the height difference between two arrows is 1.2 nm; (c) AFM image of large graphene oxide sheets on mica, small
holes in the sheets are caused by overexposure to sonicaion; (d) TEM image of a partially folded water-soluble graphene sheet.
Nano Lett., Vol. 8, No. 6, 2008 1681
°C to remove residual water trapped in the film. The
conductivity of sulfonated graphene oxide (GO-SO3H),
graphene, and graphite is shown in Table 1. Graphite oxide
is not conductive because it lacks an extended π-conjugated
orbital system. After prereduction, the conductivity of GO-
SO3H product is 17 S/m, indicating a partial restoration of
conjugation. Further reduction of GO-SO3H to graphene with
hydrazine resulted in a > 70-fold increase in the conductivity
to 1250 S/m. By comparison, the conductivity of similarly
deposited graphite flakes measured under the same conditions
(6120 S/m) is only 4 times higher than that of the evaporated
graphene film. The electrical conductivity of the contiguous
evaporated layer of graphene implies that the extensive
conjugated sp2-carbon network is restored in the water-
soluble graphene. The conductivities in Table 1 are lower
bounds since the measurement has contributions from both
in-plane and through-plane electron conduction combined
with percolating contact resistances in the evaporated film.
And moreover, the lateral dimensions of the graphite flakes
(30-40 µm) are more than an order of magnitude larger than
the dimensions of the water-soluble graphene sheets, and
lateral dimensions affect the measured conductivity.
In summary, we presented a route to isolated, water-soluble
graphene that is amenable to bulk production. In our product,
the majority of oxygen-containing functional groups are
removed. The water-soluble graphene exists in the form of
single carbon sheets exhibiting an electrical conductivity
comparable to graphite. With further surface modifications,
graphene that is soluble in organic solvents should be
accessible thereby further expediting the application of
graphene in composite materials, emissive displays, micro-
mechanical resonators, transistors, and ultrasensitive chemical
Acknowledgment. We acknowledge Meredith Earl for her
help with ATR-FTIR measurements and Dr. Marc Ter Horst
for the MAS NMR measurements. This work was supported
in part by NSF (NIRT: Bio-Inspired Actuating Structures
CMS-0507151) and NASA (URETI “Biologically Inspired
Materials” Grant NAG-1-2301).
Supporting Information Available: Descriptions of
graphene synthesis, AFM, TEM, ATR-FTIR, MAS NMR,
zeta potential, and electrical conductivity measurements. This
material is available free of charge via the Internet at http://
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