The Graphene Gambit

Mark Anderson’s Carbon Trifecta has a simple goal: saving the planet.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
When it comes to taking on global warming, few ideas are as audacious as the one put forward by Mark Anderson, the Friday Harbor-based CEO of Strategic News Service who has a knack for identifying technology trends. The idea sounds simple: Take the tons of carbon dioxide spewing from our industrial plants and transform it into graphene, a form of carbon just one atom thick but 200 times stronger than steel, more conductive than copper, harder than diamond, extremely elastic and one millionth the thickness of a human hair. Turn that substance into “ink” for a 3-D printer and use it to manufacture everything.
 
Such a plan, Anderson believes, would drastically lower the amount of CO2 sent into the atmosphere while simultaneously creating a new, sustainable manufacturing sector producing graphene-composed objects ranging from buildings and vehicles to electronics and clothing.
 
Several years ago, Anderson, a longtime fan of graphene, challenged a group of high-tech executives and scientists at his annual “Future in Review” conference to help verify and formalize his idea of using graphene to address global warming. He then sent a copy to every member of Congress. No one responded. In January, tired of waiting for others to act, Anderson formed the Carbon Trifecta (carbontrifecta.org), a Seattle-based nonprofit with the goal of making the idea a reality. “It seems as though no one is working on the most important aspect of the problem of global warming: How do we behave over the next 30-year transition [to renewables] without destroying the planet on the way to saving it?” Anderson explains. “We don’t think industry would find this solution set on its own.” 
 
To lead Carbon Trifecta, Anderson tapped Andrew Himes, a former Microsoft executive who cofounded the Microsoft Developer Network and led the first web development project at Microsoft before becoming a nonprofit startup specialist. He was the founding executive director of the Charter for Compassion International, an organization whose goal is to encourage people to live by the principle of compassion. 
 
“I have known Andrew for over 20 years and he represents the perfect combination of passion, technical knowledge and experience with both for-profit and philanthropic enterprises,” Anderson notes. “Most important, it took him about 10 minutes to comprehend the importance and utility of the Carbon Trifecta, and no time at all to come on board.”
 
When he first heard about the idea, Himes says he thought, “That sounds way too cool to be true.”
 
However, after learning more about graphene, what it looks like at the nano level and how it can connect to other nano carbons, Himes says, “I became convinced this could be the idea that could create a sustainable and flourishing future environment for human beings.”
 
Carbon Trifecta aims to bring Anderson’s grandiose vision to life by supporting and encouraging advances in science, financing, knowledge sharing and cooperation among countries and industries with respect to graphene. The startup nonprofit has a staff of two and is in the midst of raising $3 million in seed funding through Kickstarter, foundations and individual philanthropists.
 
Scientists are hot on graphene. “The unification of all these amazing properties in a one-atom-thin membrane makes graphene a promising candidate for a variety of applications, from ultra-high-speed optical, electrical and optoelectronic devices to new work in optomechanics, optical and electrical interconnects and biosensors,” says Xiaodong Xu, a scientist at the University of Washington who has been working on the application of graphene in photoelectronics since 2009. A UW colleague, Mehmet Sarikaya, sees graphene as a promising interface between biology and electronics for surgically implanted bioelectric devices that can alter the body’s own processes to treat such afflictions as arthritis and high blood pressure. At Washington State University, Yuehe Lin, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and a laboratory fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), has developed a graphene-based portable biosensor that makes it easier to detect harmful bacteria like E. coli.
 
The Boeing Company has secured a number of patents involving graphene. “Boeing sees potential in using graphene to make aircraft lighter and more fuel efficient while maintaining safety and reliability,” Boeing spokesman Tom Koehler says. “Presently, we are not utilizing graphene on our airplanes due to the maturity of the technology. We will, however, continue to track developments associated with graphene since it offers many opportunities across various markets, including aviation.”
 
Indeed, most experts say the science needed to deliver on Anderson’s ideas is still years away.
 
“It’s a wonderful idea, but a hard thing to do,” says James Tour, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University in Houston. Tour holds more graphene patents than any other individual in the United States, and he says graphene research is still in a nascent stage, lacks funding and can’t be produced at a reasonable cost. “Graphene is very much a cottage industry,” says Tour. 
 
Tour’s patents are being used to produce nano particles that can be used in laundry detergents and upholstery for brighter colors as well as in LED displays and other electrical and medical applications. To the extent that research is being done at any extensive level, says Tour, it’s happening in places like South Korea and China, where government backs the research.
 
But Anderson’s grand idea us gaining currency at home, too. In March, Karl Mueller, a chief science and technology officer at PNNL, was co-lead for an initiative presented before 17 national laboratories called CARBON: Carbon Advanced Research for Building Our Nation. The scientists suggested the labs examine ways to combine CO2 with inexpensive energy to create high-performance carbon materials that can be turned into valuable products and industries. One champion of the idea is Blake Simmons, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who is also a member of Carbon Trifecta’s advisory committee. Another participant, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has worked on ways to use 3-D printers and syringe barrels filled with graphene oxide ink, sometimes referred to as liquid smoke, to build structures that could lead to new electronics and energy storage devices.
 
The truth is that pure graphene is incredibly difficult to work with. Most research to date has involved using relatively small quantities. One of the biggest challenges Carbon Trifecta faces is finding an affordable way to make large quantities of pure graphene from carbon dioxide.
 
Today, most graphene produced in the world is of a less pure form that has been reduced from mined graphite through extremely toxic chemicals like hydrazine, which damages the environment. It does not have the many miraculous properties of pure graphene. Some companies use the process for making the silicon in semiconductors to create graphene sheets, but the resulting graphene still has too many defects to be useful.
 
Pure graphene production began in 2014, but in limited quantities. While the European Union and a few companies such as Samsung have invested significant sums, progress has been slow. To make graphene affordable, Anderson is turning to technology from San Francisco startup Graphene Technologies Inc., which patented a process that involves burning magnesium in a carbon dioxide atmosphere. Jon Myers, cofounder of Graphene Technologies, says he moved on because he couldn’t raise the millions of dollars needed to make headway, and his partners wanted to go in a different direction.
 
Anderson hopes that raising the profile of graphene and getting the Department of Energy’s national laboratories involved would speed progress toward perfecting the critical stage of making pure graphene.
 
“If Graphene Technologies used a hypothetical target of [harnessing] 10 percent of the carbon from U.S. power plant emissions, that would be 59 million metric tons of carbon,” says Anderson. That kind of production would make it one of the biggest companies on the planet.
 
Myers of Graphene Technologies says that making the process work would require multiple breakthroughs, including developing the synthesis process for taking CO2 from smokestacks and transforming it into graphene; optimizing the process to produce the graphene “inks” for use in 3-D printers; optimizing the inks for use in different industries; and developing 3-D printers that use graphene-based inks.
 
“The technical path is clear, but ambitious,” says Myers, an advisory member of the Carbon Trifecta. 
 
One challenge is clearly environmental. In trying to solve global warming, Anderson could end up creating another problem. Indranil Chowdhury, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University, is investigating what effect graphene may have on surface water. Preliminary studies indicate graphene degrades into organic chemicals, some of which are known to be carcinogenic.
 
Tour points out that even if the nonprofit group creates a 3-D printer ink that “can make anything,” it would still be unlikely to compete against low-cost steel, concrete and aluminum or the infrastructure already in place for those commodities. “Even if they offered me $1 billion and told me to solve it in two years,” says Tour, “there’s no economical solution I know of. While every step can be done, you’re going to lose money at each step.” 
“People ask why is it taking so long,” adds Tour, “but it’s really not taking long at all. Graphene was only first discovered in 2004, and we’re not even 15 years in. Typically, it takes much, much longer to get materials massively into products.”
Anderson remains undeterred. “At stake,” he says, “are not only the financial and security futures of our grandchildren, cultures and countries, but also the survival of a large fraction of the plant and animal species alive today. With widespread and rapid support for the Carbon Trifecta, there is no reason we can’t look forward to a future that we all prefer."
 
The support Anderson envisions encompasses universities, corporations and countries. “Without such widescale international cooperation,” he admits, “the plan won’t work. Rich countries and poor — China and the United States, the EU, UK, and Australia — companies in technology and finance, utilities and chemicals; universities, think tanks, governments, laboratories and individuals can all be productive parts of this new program.” 

GRAPHENE: WHAT CAN YOU MAKE OF IT?

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov’s work on graphene at the University of Manchester earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Since then, there has been an explosion in research on graphene around the world, as well as locally.

IN AVIATION
HRL Laboratories, owned jointly by Boeing and General Motors, has developed what it calls “the world’s lightest material” by creating a tiny lattice structure made up of hollow, interwoven graphene tubes that are one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. Boeing hopes the material will make airplanes lighter. A matchbox-size piece of the material can sit on a dandelion’s puffball. It can absorb a shock and return to its original shape.

IN HEALTH CARE
PNNL, the University of Washington and Washington State University are trying to tap some of the nanomaterial’s properties for use in stem-cell bone repair and in biosensors that detect harmful bacteria. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have found a way to use graphene to power a synthetic, electronic skin that could one day give prosthetics a sense of touch, helping to overcome a major obstacle in this field of research.

IN POWER
PNNL researchers and scientists from Princeton University have used graphene to increase capacity, cycle life and power in traditional lithium-ion batteries, promoting faster charging/discharging. They licensed the technology to Maryland-based Vorbeck Materials, which uses graphene in aerospace antenna systems, clothing and communication devices for the military, coatings and in tires, which reduces rolling resistance, among other applications.

IN FILTRATION
The substance has so much buzz that Apoorv Khandelwal, a senior at Redmond’s Tesla STEM High School, chose graphene to produce the filters for a system he designed to make seawater drinkable. The project made him a finalist for the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search competition earlier this year. Alas, Khandelwal had trouble with the graphene and had to patch it with other substances.

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