by Shelley Kimel, News Sentinel
Imagine holding your car on a sheet of plastic wrap. Now, make that plastic wrap 1 million times thinner and you’re close to the size and strength of graphene.
Jason Richards/ORNL Ivan Vlassiouk, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, holds silicon wafer on which a layer of graphene is deposited. His findings about manufacturing graphene have been licensed by General Graphene, an Oak Ridge startup.
Vig Sherrill’s Oak Ridge startup, General Graphene, licensed from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Texas in 2014 the technology to manufacture the advanced material in an affordable manner that would widen its use in everyday products.
Graphene, which is made of a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon design Sherrill likens to “atomic chicken wire,” is harder than diamond, but flexible; 200 times stronger than steel, but only one atom thick; and has 1,000 times the current carrying capacity and is 20 times more thermally conductive than copper. It’s also one of the most expensive materials in the world.
“Imagine having tires that only weigh two to three pounds; airplane wings that weigh a hundred pounds; and clothing that becomes bulletproof based on the fact that its made out of graphene,” Sherrill says. “That’s the potential of graphene.”
General Graphene plans to make those products a reality through cheaper, faster production of the material using those licenses combined with its proprietary technology
The company in November received an $8.7 million investment from a consortium led by Knoxville-based Angel Capital Group and one syndication partner to help in its quest.
It’s the largest investment in Angel Capital’s history and one of the largest Series A financing rounds in the Southeast region, says CEO Eric Dobson, himself a “recovering entrepreneur” and founder of Knoxville-based TrakLok.
What’s exceptional, however, is that 95 percent of the funding came from within the state — mostly Nashville and Knoxville. The ability to completely fund startups locally increases the chance they’ll stay, grow and create jobs here rather than looking elsewhere, Dobson said.
Sherrill will use the funds to produce the company’s first prototype over the next two years. He expects to see consumer applications within 10 years.
He is quick to give credit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s licensing team and particularly researcher Ivan Vlassiouk, who helped create the technology he is commercializing.
“Our approach represents a major step toward the goal of cost-effective industrial roll-to-roll graphene manufacturing,” Vlassiouk says. “We appreciate General Graphene’s entrepreneurial vision and expertise in transitioning our scientific research to the commercial marketplace.”
The entrepreneur and researcher continue to work together, and earlier this year a team including Vlassiouk found another use for graphene as a filter in an energy-efficient desalination process.
Researchers see applications for the material — either as sheets or a powder — in flexible electronics, lightweight and safe materials for the auto industry, more efficient batteries and solar panels or as an additive to other materials to improve their strength, in 3-D printing composites for example.
The possible uses for graphene beyond what we know today are unimaginable, Sherrill says, but also unobtainable because the material is currently too expensive to produce widely.
“Right now you can only get graphene the size of a deck of cards (for about $1,000). It’s not enough to do anything with except experiment and even then not very much. Our first prototype proof of concept will produce stuff about the size of a piece of paper for less,” Sherrill says.
Eventually General Graphene will produce sheets of the material by the square meter, further reducing the price by an order of magnitude. When that happens and the material is more available, research will really take off, he says.
“Go back 60 years and ask what were the uses of plastic before plastic was invented?” he says. “It’s amazing. This is Jetsons kind of stuff.”