Graphene technology is expected to change many industrial sectors such as electronics, energy, health and manufacturing. Canadian junior graphite mining company Lomiko Metals (V.LMR) and New York, USA based high-tech start-up Graphene Labs are working together to bring graphene materials closer to commercial production.
Dr. Stolyarov and Dr. Elena Polyakova, the founders of Graphene Labs, have been involved with graphene from its very early stages. Dr. Polyakova was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University when, in 2005, her advisor proposed five projects one of which was graphene. “I had never heard of graphene before.” she said. Dr. Stolyarov came to the still infant field in 2007. Now graphene has exploded with nearly 10,000 patents applied for and scientific papers being published daily.
“The fundamental science is pretty much done.” explained Polyakova, “Scientists have shown graphene is a fascinating material and capable of redefining the world we live in. Now it will take engineering and chemistry to make this a reality.”
This is by no means an easy task. First, graphene needs to be produced in large quantities for a reasonable price. Finding the graphite is not usually the problem. There is a lot of graphite in the world; the question is whether the graphite a company finds is fit for the purpose. The situation is complicated because graphene is a relatively new material with a large variety of applications and the metrics for the quality of the graphene itself have not been standardized.
Graphene Labs, Lomiko and Stony Brook University collaborated on a project to determine the obstacles to the industrial production of graphene. For this purpose, the Graphene Labs received a bulk sample of graphite from Lomiko Quatre Milles property and converted it into Reduced Graphene Oxide, a form of graphene nanoplatelets. Scientists in Stony Brook University used these nanoplatelets to fabricate the prototype of a supercapacitor and evaluate its performance. The project tested the production chain starting from the raw graphite extracted from the mine and ending with a prototype product ready to be offered to the end consumer. The project tried to determine how the quality of the starting material (graphite) affects the performance of the end product.
Dr. Daniel Stolyarov, of Lomiko Metals collaborator Graphene Laboratories Inc. explained that while a lot of people focus on graphite purity, “With graphene, the quality of the initial crystalline structure of the graphite is often just as important.”
“The procedure used for making graphene out of graphite can make the crystals smaller but we cannot make them bigger. So the quality of the graphite for graphene manufacturing depends on the quality of the initial crystal. The size and the number of defects are important. You want large crystals with low levels of imperfection.”
“We were quite surprised to find the performance of the supercapacitor prototype was at a high level compared with similar supercapacitors described in scientific publications. We were working with raw graphite while the other scientists were using graphite subjected to vigorous purification procedures. We attribute our success to the exceptional properties of the the Quartre Milles graphite”.
Which is good news for Lomiko Metals CEO Paul Gill whose Quatre Milles graphite property has provided the samples to Graphene Labs.
“The Quartre Milles graphite is outstanding raw material.” Stolyarov explained. “The graphene oxide and reduced graphene oxide made with Lomiko’s flake graphite was very conductive when used in prototype supercapacitor.”
Lomiko and Graphene Labs have also been collaborating on the development of other applications for graphene. One of these applications just reached the disclosure stage: using graphene based nano-composite materials for 3D printing applications.
Speaking to the Graphene Live! Conference Dr. Polyakova stated, “We anticipate graphene-enabled materials will revolutionize 3D printing. We anticipate strong demand in airspace, automotive, semi-conductor and advanced manufacturing industries.”
Essentially graphene is mixed with the existing plastic polymer used as the 3D printing medium. This mixing allows the graphene to “share” some of its qualities with the polymer. So, for example, a non-conductive 3D printing plastic polymer will become conductive when infused with graphene nanoplatelets.
As Paul Gill, CEO of Lomiko Metals puts it: “If you think of printing with black ink on white paper that is what 3D printing is now. Add graphene and you are suddenly able to print in colour.”
Less metaphorically, the addition of graphene to existing 3D polymers should allow the combining several materials with different functionalities within one printing process and the creation of functioning, printed, circuits in 3D constructions. You could print a 3D flashlight which, once you added a bulb and a battery, would work.
Enhancing polymers with graphene can endow them with some of the extraordinary mechanical strength, conductivity and thermal properties which graphene holds.
Dr. Stolyarov is quick to point out that just adding graphene nanoplatelets to a batch of polymer is not the whole story. There are proprietary techniques involved which are required to actually coax the graphene to share its attributes with the host material. And these are the techniques which form the intellectual property of the Lomiko/Graphene Labs spin off Graphene 3D Labs.
Dr. Polyakova sees graphene’s first round of applications as being in composite materials. Graphene enhanced polymers or graphene based inks are already on the market allowing for printed electronics on paper or other surfaces.
“It is a very competitive field. Getting good raw material, making graphene and blending it with a 3D printing medium are all important steps but there is a lot more to it than just mixing the graphene with the polymer.” said Dr. Polyakova.
To date, graphene itself has been expensive largely because it has not been made in bulk. And, as Dr. Polyakova points out, it has not been made in bulk because there has not been the demand for bulk.
At time of writing Lomiko was trading at .10 and had a market capitalization of 8.4 million dollars.
(Fundamental Research has prepared a report on Lomiko which can be seen here (PDF) and Fundamental will be hosting a conference call on Wednesday January 8th at 1:00PM EST, 10:00AM PST. Call in details are here.)