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Atom-thick carbon layers could be ‘new silicon’

17-year-old among company’s founders

By Kathleen Gallagher

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — Someday in the not too distant future, a TV as thin as a poster could hang on your wall.

There’s a good chance, too, that a Platteville, Wis.-area company, founded in part by a 17-year-old boy, will have played a critical role in creating that product.

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Graphene Solutions is a three-month-old company with a patent-pending technology that dissolves carbon nanotubes, graphene nanosheets and other materials so they can be purified and spread in a layer one atom thick.

That could pave the way for electronic components, like computer chips, that are dramatically smaller with much greater capacity.

"If you can very easily, reproducibly lay out a one-atom-thick layer of carbon, this is the new silicon," said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which helped the company get started. WARF is the patenting and licensing arm for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Graphene Solutions is applying its technology to the manufacture of graphenes like carbon nanotubes — tiny, stronger-than-steel tubes that disperse heat and conduct electricity much better than silicon. Carbon nanotubes are expected to be critical for the next generation of electronics, optics and other fields of materials science.

Tons of applications

Graphene Solutions’ technology should have uses beyond the electronic displays the company initially will focus on because its solutions can be used to make even, one-atom-thick layers of other materials, Gulbrandsen said. That should give it "tons of applications" in areas as diverse as batteries, sensors, solar cells and medical devices, he said.

"It is a platform technology," he said. "They might have created an industry."

Graphene Solutions was founded by James Hamilton, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville; Philip A. Jackson, its chief executive officer; and Philip Streich, a 17-year-old student in Hamilton’s lab.

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Hamilton and Jackson have another company called Photonic Cleaning Technologies. That company makes a polymer coating that has been used to clean the Hope Diamond and some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes, optics and lasers, Jackson said.

Milestone achievement

Graphene Solutions grew out of work Hamilton, Streich and other collaborators published in the May 19 issue of Advanced Materials. Hamilton’s lab had done what no one else has been able to do: dissolve graphene and make single-particle carbon nanotubes that don’t clump together in bundles.

Electrons travel 100 times faster in graphene — one-atom-thick sheets of carbon that are packed in a chicken wire-like lattice — than in silicon, Hamilton said.

His lab had the time to figure out how to spread graphene evenly because UW-Platteville and the UW system bought him out of his teaching responsibilities for two years, said Maliyakal E. John, general manager of WiSys, the licensing and patenting arm for most schools in the UW System.

WARF and WiSys have several patents pending on the technology, John said. They will give Graphene Solutions the licenses it needs and explore similar opportunities with other companies, he said.

The company, one of 20 finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, hopes to sell purified and size-controlled carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials to companies like Sony, Samsung and Motorola, Jackson said. Over time, it might expand into other markets, such as aerospace, energy and health care, he said.

Despite their potential, nanotubes have not established a significant market because of problems mass-manufacturing them and pricing them competitively, according to a recent market report by Freedonia Research Group. Graphene Solutions’ technology solves those problems because it allows mass production of a uniform product that can be sold at reasonable prices, Jackson said.

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And that’s just the beginning, Hamilton says.

"We have a lot more intellectual property," he said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

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