University welcomes research for students; technology may be breakthrough
SAN RAFAEL — Dominican University in San Rafael has joined forces with a Marin company producing graphene from carbon dioxide, allowing students to conduct research commonly reserved for large universities and bolstering the company’s efforts to refine manufacturing of the promising material.
The partnership with the company, Graphene Technologies, represents an increasing trend among universities, enhancing the real-world experience of students without adding expenses like hiring additional instructors, said Dr. Sibdas Ghosh, chair of the department of Natural Science and Mathematics at Dominican.
“Other universities will see this as a viable model,” Dr. Ghosh, chair since 2001, said. “They (Graphene Technologies) have the technology — we have the space and the students.”
For Graphene Technologies, which moved much of its analysis and processing of the material to Dominican in June, the help of intern researchers has already resulted in discoveries that have significantly improved the manufacturing process. The goal, said company CEO and co-founder Jon Myers, is to be able to produce one ton of the material per year by the end of 2012.
“Right now, if you asked us for 50 grams, we’d have to work for days to make it,” he said. “People are asking us for five tons.”
Graphene caught the widespread attention of both commercial and scientific interests when two physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won a Nobel Prize for researching its properties in 2010. Naturally present in graphite but difficult to produce in volume, the one-atom-thick lattice of carbon is extremely strong and conductive, opening the door for applications like flexible computers and currently in demand by companies producing electrically conductive inks.
Wayne Dickinson, holder of a long list of patents and chief engineer at San Rafael-based High Temperature Physics, discovered how to produce graphene from the greenhouse gas by near accident while researching a use for stored carbon dioxide with Mr. Myers in 2009. The approach, the founders said, was a stark contrast to the methods of other graphene producers that “exfoliate” the material from graphite found in relatively rare, high-purity mines abroad.
The firm soon spawned Graphene Technologies, raising capital through a handful of private investors and outgrowing the garage that it once called home.
“It was ruining the furniture,” laughed Mr. Dickinson, recounting splitting work between his garage and additional equipment in the backyard.
It was earlier this year when Mr. Myers walked from his home near the Dominican campus to ask Dr. Ghosh about lab space in the area.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you do this here?’,” Mr. Myers said. “The excitement was – here’s a chance for students to have real hands-on experience.”
In exchange for the space, the university required that Myers and the company take on Dominican students as interns. Five students – all undergraduates – have joined since June, helping to fine-tune the purification of the material that the company produces off-site.
On a recent Friday afternoon, those students joined a handful of company researchers in a large lab classroom at Dominican, preparing the black powdery graphene for analysis by an outside company that would compare the results of various purification treatments.
The time required to purify the material had already dropped eight-fold since research began at Dominican, following the discovery that 15 minutes in water or acid yielded the same results as two hours.
“It’s more economically viable than it was five months ago,” Mr. Myers said. “We know the steps — now we’re working on minimizing and shortening those steps.”
Okon Pekjil, a 24-year-old biology undergraduate, joined as an intern in August and was part of the team that made the discovery.
“You don’t strive for the teacher’s approval – you strive for your own success,” he said.
Dr. Ghosh hand-picked Mr. Pekjil for the project, as well as the four other students that have joined so far. The department chair said that he could see up to a dozen student researchers at a time learning the art of lab work through the partnership, an experience that has appeal across many majors.
“I hope our students appreciate when they graduate that they can improvise,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s about learning from making mistakes.”
The varied backgrounds and fresh thinking of the intern researchers has also brought unique ideas to the endeavor that may not have emerged with a team composed solely of deeply trained chemists, Mr. Myers said.
To create the material, the company employs a fiery reaction with magnesium.The reaction tears the oxygen from the carbon dioxide, creating magnesium oxide and carbon in the honeycomb structure of graphene. Another step reclaims the magnesium, which can then be reused.
By fabricating the so-called “reactors” themselves and conducting much of their own research, the founders said that they’ve kept costs low. The team has gone through $1.5 million in investor capital over the four years since they started researching a use for the stored carbon dioxide, compared to the $10 million that a government contract may have cost.
Meanwhile, the cost of the material remains high: in one case, $1,000 for a one-liter bottle of 79-percent graphene through Graphene Supermarket, the web-based storefront of Graphene Laboratories in New York.
If the new approach succeeds, Mr. Myers, who has helped found half a dozen companies, said it will eliminate the need to mine the world’s limited supply of pure graphite, with the potential to supply the material to industry and researchers at a cheaper price.
As they seek further patents for the process, Mr. Dickinson said that he is sensitive to making sure that all of the researchers involved, including the students, are recognized.
“The interns are smart, and smart people are great to work with,” he said.
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