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Inventing the Future: Philly startup is at the forefront of a consumer electronics revolution

The Graphene Team





Imagine a material that's invisible to the naked eye, ten times stronger than diamond, incredibly flexible, impermeable to gases and the world's best-known conductor of electricity. It's called graphene, and a Philadelphia company is poised to revolutionize its production.

Graphene grabbed headlines in 2010, when two physicists from the University of Manchester in the U.K. won the Nobel Prize after isolating specks of carbon only one atom thick. Subsequent experiments confirmed what scientists had believed for decades: The anatomically thin samples -- graphene -- had incomparable physical qualities.

Flakes were great for research, but as sheets, graphene has the potential to revolutionize medical science, consumer electronics, and our ability to generate and store renewable energy.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the seeds of Graphene Frontiers were being sown. A.T. Charlie Johnson, head of a nanophysics laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoctoral researcher Zhengtang Luo were working together on a novel production technique. They designed an "Atmospheric Pressure Chemical Vapor Deposition" (APCVD) -- a process common to the semiconductor industry -- for making graphene sheets.

Inexpensive, plentiful graphene is poised to send ripples through the supply chain and enable flexible organic electronics to come to market. This new consumer technology -- which uses carbon-based polymers instead of copper or silicone -- promises ultrathin, flexible, sun-powered consumer devices and sheets of solar panels printed in rolls.

Johnson and Luo's company, Graphene Frontiers, is among the first manufacturers of commercial-grade sheet graphene in the world. The company began at Penn's UPStart, a program dedicated to technology commercialization. They eventually hired CEO Mike Patterson, a Wharton MBA and former SVP of global delivery for Bank of America.

In 2011, iCorps accepted Graphene Frontiers into their first cohort and the company worked with entrepreneurial giant Steve Blank. In 2012, they opened their headquarters at the University City Science Center's Port Business Incubator. Graphene Frontiers receives grants from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research Program and has earned an additional $500,000 in angel investment.

"You could do a lot with this material if you could manage to make a lot of it," says Patterson. "That’s what [Graphene Frontiers] does. We have a way to make large-area pieces of graphene relatively cheaply."

Graphene’s only element—carbon—is everywhere and exists in different allotropes, or bond formations, including diamond. Structurally, graphene is just graphite (like the stuff in No. 2 pencils) in a single atomic layer.

"It’s a hexagonal lattice that’s essentially perfect," explains Patterson. "If you look at it under an electron microscope it looks like a chain-link fence. It’s just carbon arranged in a specific pattern."

Hidden inside the composition of graphite are submicroscopic platelets of graphene. The Nobel Prize winners confirmed graphene’s existence in 2004 by peeling back the atomic layers of a graphite block using scotch tape. It was an incredibly simple solution to a complicated problem.

Currently, standard graphene processes blow apart gaphite, releasing the submicroscopic shards. The resulting powder is in paints, polymers (plastics) and batteries.

Graphene Frontiers, on the other hand, "grows" the allotrope. The process begins with a sheet of copper foil placed inside a furnace. Methane gas is added to the foil’s surface. Carbon atoms from the gas adhere to the hot copper and bond to each other laterally, creating a sheet of graphene -- like ice forming on a pond.

Graphene Frontiers has also developed the first chemical-free technique that cleanly removes graphene from copper. The method allows for repeated use of a single piece of foil, a key component for large-scale manufacturing.

"It's really going to rile the entire industry," he says. "What graphene can do is provide a super thin, conductive layer. Because of graphene, thin, flexible organic electronics are going to take off."

Currently, Graphene Frontiers sells samples to research and development departments of universities and corporations, as well as government and military agencies. They partner with SPI Supplies in West Chester on custom Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) grids, a fine mesh that traps DNA, cellular proteins and molecules inside a slide. With a coat of graphene, TEM slides are capable of holding these frenetic particles steady, enabling a new class of research. TEM slides are already generating revenue for Graphene Frontiers.

The company has entered an undisclosed partnership with a major materials corporation to help scale up production. By the end of this year, they expect to have a prototype.

Initially, the larger pieces of sheet graphene will enhance specialty products including chemical sensors and energy storage units such as supercapacitors. Within three or four years, consumer tech companies including Google, Apple and Samsung expect to release a new generation of inexpensive cell phones and tablets that can fold up and tuck inside a shirt pocket. Graphene Frontiers' goal is to be their supplier.

The market has tremendous potential. By 2018, Graphene Frontiers projects a total addressable market of $1.2 billion, made up of market segments including energy storage units (supercapacitors, batteries), thermal management systems, thin film solar and thin flexible printed display electronics.

To keep pace with that demand, the company is hiring two or three PhD-level scientists this year. In three to four years, they expect to boast 100-plus employees -- 50 percent of which will be in Research and Development.
"Graphene was that final missing piece," says Patterson. "It's the first demonstratable and isolated two-dimensional material -- it has just one single layer of atoms -- and that's special. In the world of graphene, having anything bigger than a centimeter square is a big deal. We've already gone to iPad-sized pieces."

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News Editor.
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