Graphene Frontiers, a company developed through the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Technology Transfer, has been awarded a $744,600 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop roll-to-roll production of graphene, the “miracle material” at the heart of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Graphene Frontiers’ technology was developed by A.T. Charlie Johnson, director of Penn’s Nano/Bio Interface Center and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences, along with Zhengtang Luo, a former postdoctoral researcher in Johnson’s lab who is now a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
They founded the company in 2011 through the Center for Technology Transfer’s UPstart program. UPstart serves as a business incubator for technologies developed at the University and connected the researchers with Michael Patterson, then a member of the Wharton Executive MBA program, who is now the company’s CEO.
Graphene, a single-atom-thick layer of carbon, is transparent, conductive, impermeable and exceptionally strong. These properties could be used in high sensitivity chemical detection devices and biosensors, desalination membranes and flexible touchscreens but producing the material in bulk remains a challenge; existing graphene production techniques can only make it in small patches or flakes. Graphene Frontiers’ approach can produce meter-long sheets of the material and does not need to take place in a vacuum, enabling it to be more easily integrated with other industrial processes.
“The new project is to advance the approach to the point where it works like newspaper printing,” said Johnson, who is also the chair of Graphene Frontiers' scientific advisory board. “A roll of copper foil goes in to the growth system, and a roll of graphene on a suitable backing comes out. This sort of ‘roll-to-roll’ process would enable large-scale production of graphene with high quality at low cost.”
The NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant will be used to scale Graphene Frontiers’ production capacity.
“Our platform technology will disrupt energy capture/storage, electronics, sensors, wireless communication, water desalination and more. In all of these areas, graphene will allow us to improve performance, lower cost and reduce environmental impact,” Patterson said.