By now most people have heard of graphene. 200 times stronger than steel, 500 times more conductive than copper, extraordinarily heat conductor: its potential applications range from water filtration to flexible screens. There is no question graphene is a materials science game changer.
Adding graphene to polymers greatly improves properties of the existing materials and offers a spectacular pathway for innovation. Right now, Graphene 3D Labs Inc. (OTCQB:GPHBF) is bringing the science of graphene composites to real commercial applications. It is making graphene-enhanced polymers for 3D printing which companies and engineers are using to making prototypes and real products. Graphene 3D Lab also possesses an exclusive technology for industrial scale production of high quality graphene nanoplatelets and is working on scaling up its production facility utilizing this technology.
"Too many people think graphene enhanced products are five or ten years away. They're not. Graphene is ready for commercial use right now." said Elena Polyakova, co-CEO of Graphene 3D Lab Inc. "We have graphene enhanced polymers ready to go."
Bulk graphene nanoplatelets, if you can produce them, are a black powder which is notoriously hard to work with. Turning bulk graphene into materials scientists and materials engineers can easily work with is a critical challenge in the graphene supply chain.
"If we want to make lighter weight, stronger, polymer parts for, say, a drone so that drone can fly longer, graphene enhanced polymers may be the solution. Right now, Graphene 3D Lab can deliver that solution. And our graphene enhanced polymers will work with the existing molds and injection molding technology." said Polyakova.
Making graphene useable is like baking: you need the right ingredients, you also have to mix them properly and actually bake your cake at the right temperature for the right time. Properly mixed, graphene will strongly bind to polymer molecules, and some of the properties of graphene will become properties of the combined material.
Graphene 3D Labs has been introducing graphene enhanced materials for a couple of years. Its first product was a graphene enhanced polymer which made conductive 3D printing possible.
How you mix graphene with a particular polymer to obtain the characteristics you need is not obvious. One thing which Polyakova points out is that, just like a cake, you don't want lumps of unmixed material. "We have developed a unique approach to modify graphene and mix it with polymers." said Polyakova. You also may need to have other ingredients besides graphene and the polymer you are working on. Plus you need to know how long the polymer/graphene mix needs to "cook".
"These are complex materials." said Polyakova. "Sometimes you need to adjust the properties of the polymer or adjust the amount of graphene and add another ingredient."
Developing graphene composite products as well as other technology intensive polymers is part of Graphene 3D Lab's business vision of being an essential link in the high tech materials supply chain. "We have been learning for many years." said Polyakova. "What we've learned has applications in aerospace, cars, robotics, and 3D printing."
There is no "cookbook" for integrating graphene and other nano materials into polymers. Instead there is experience and trial and error. Coming up with the precise blend of ingredients is a process and each polymer and each potential application presents its own challenges. As Graphene 3D Labs develops new products it is adding to its own storehouse of intellectual property both with respect to graphene and with respect to the polymers themselves.
At the same time Graphene 3D Lab is acquiring the equipment required to scale up its production. "Typically, a scientist or engineer will want a small quantity of a material to test." said Polyakova, "If the test is successful there will be a larger order and, in the past, we have had difficulty filling larger orders. By investing in larger scale equipment we are able to meet the bulk sample requirements of our customers."
Polyakova has been working with graphene for over ten years. Her experience makes her a sought after speaker at prestigious conferences on graphene and her company, Graphene 3D Labs, through its online Graphene Supermarket, has supplied laboratory scale graphene samples since 2009. With co-CEO Daniel Stolyarov, Graphene 3D Labs is working at every level of the graphene supply chain.
Currently, graphene is expensive. It is expensive because it is difficult to produce in bulk and its high price hinders the potential applications. Graphene itself is a single layer of carbon atoms. It is not obvious how to effectively separate sheets of graphene from the natural graphite which is the source material. Obtaining small quantities of graphene for laboratory work is a well understood chemical process. The problem is that those small quantities tend to contain imperfections. The chemicals themselves mar the surface and it is nearly impossible to obtain uniformity. Graphene 3D Lab is changing that.
"You can think of natural graphite as a book the pages of which are graphene." said Polyakova. "The challenge is separating those pages. If you use a chemical method to separate the pages, the pages will be damaged. If you try to separate "pages" by other means, the material you are left with will not be uniform at all."
Polyakova has worked with materials scientists on a very different approach to separating the graphene pages. "We now have a machine and own the IP for a mechanical separation process." said Polyakova. The actual nature of the mechanical process is proprietary, however, in broad terms the machine is using a separation process that is capable of differentiating large and thin (few atomic layers) graphene platelets, from small, thick ones.
Critically, this mechanical separation process is automated and can run continuously. Where chemical processes are lucky to produce grams of graphene per day, Polyakova is confident that the company's machine will soon be producing at least tens of kilograms per day. Only fraction of a percent is needed to improve the properties of a polymer. And that graphene, because it is not treated chemically, will not have the lattice imperfections which bedevil current graphene productions methods. Producing graphene continuously on this scale will mean a dramatic drop in the costs to produce graphene and with that drop a significant reduction in the price of the 3D Graphene Lab products.
"We will use our unique knowledge and experience with graphene and graphene enhanced polymers to deliver the materials engineers need for their applications" said Polyakova "whether it is raw graphene platelets to be used as battery material, enhanced polymers or finished goods, we are confident that we are able to supply our customers with superb products."
3D Graphene Lab is positioning itself to be an essential link in the graphene supply chain. Being able to produce high quality graphene, in bulk, at a reasonable price, is one part of that chain. Being able to blend graphene enhanced polymers on a custom or bulk basis is another. Together, it is a recipe for success.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.