Delivering the future with graphene

Md. high-tech company poised to tap world market for novel nanomaterial

  • Vorbeck Materials CEO John Lettow and Christy Martin, director of development, are pictured in a company laboratory.
Vorbeck Materials CEO John Lettow and Christy Martin, director… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 10, 2012|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Behind locked doors in a nondescript Jessup industrial park, workers using secret techniques conjure a material that has promises to supercharge many 21st-century technologies.

Called graphene, it's a fine, fluffy black powder that could soon become part of everything from mobile phones to aircraft, circuits to electric car batteries.

Graphene is another form of graphite — the stuff in an ordinary pencil. It is just a sheet of carbon that's a single atom thick, but the so-called nanomaterial is one of the strongest and most conductive materials in the world, as much as 200 times stronger than steel.

Vorbeck Materials and its private investors have bet the company and a lot of money on its potential. The privately held company won't disclose how much money it's raised or what its revenue is.

Vorbeck hopes to make powerful, next-generation lithium ion batteries with the substance — batteries that would last several times longer than today's batteries, and could recharge in minutes, not hours. A thin wafer of Vorbeck's prototype graphene-based battery cell, which fits in the palm of a hand, can hold as much energy as 12 AA batteries.

A high-powered battery is critical to the development of a desirable electric car. Vorbeck hopes its graphene-laced batteries will help drive the United States' effort to establish a homegrown electric vehicle industry.

Such a battery "could address a lot of the reasons why consumers are reluctant to buy electric cars," said Kristen Silverberg, Vorbeck's chief operating officer.

TheU.S. Department of Energyis pumping millions of dollars into the electric vehicle industry in hopes of developing a U.S.-based supply chain that will bring back high-tech manufacturing jobs. Vorbeck is on the periphery of that effort, having received grants and contracts from other federal and Maryland government entities over the years to develop its graphene technology.

The company's efforts were noticed last month by the Energy Department when the agency acknowledged Vorbeck as one of three top energy innovators in the country.

Graphene was first isolated and developed in 2004 by two researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. For their work, the duo won the Nobel Prize in physics two years ago.

"There's a lot of promise in this material," said Michael S. Fuhrer, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Center Nanophysics and Advanced Materials.

But graphene is only one of a number of promising new-age nanomaterials that are poised to influence several industries, with researchers and companies developing new products using atomic building blocks.

Around the world, the race is on to develop a wide range of nanomaterials, transmuting atoms and molecules into new, powerful substances with broad applications in engineering, biotechnology, computing and many more industries.

Vorbeck is developing technology that sprung out of graphene research at Princeton University. Experts at the Ivy League school in New Jersey developed novel ways to produce graphene in large quantities. The company also partnered with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. government-funded research center in Richland, Wash., to develop battery technology with graphene.

But batteries aren't the only product in Vorbeck's vision. The company, founded in 2006, is pursuing several commercial applications of graphene, including conductive inks and composite materials. It is the only U.S. company with approval from theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyto sell it commercially.

With conductive inks, Vorbeck has created a paint infused with graphene, which can then be printed on paper to create cheap, yet highly effective, electrical circuits. The company sells it in a small canister similar to the paint sold in a hardware store.

Such inks are fueling growing demand for printed electronics, industry experts say.

Scientists and companies are developing ways to print solar cells, circuits, batteries and sensors using various kinds of conductive inks and other nanomaterials. Graphene is one of several materials that are being used in such inks; others include silver, copper and aluminum.

Printing presses can use conductive ink to print on paper, quickly creating cheap electrical circuits for use in a wide range of applications, from toys to "smart" packaging, in which a packaged product embedded with the paper circuit triggers an alarm when stolen from a store.

The potential market for printed electronics is vast, estimated at more than $2.3 billion this year and expected to grow to $63 billion by 2022, according to IDTechEx, a United Kingdom-based industry consultant.

"We're seeing a lot of innovation coming in terms of nanotechnology," said Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, a technology analyst with IDTechEx. "If you can manage to get a little bit of this material [graphene] into solar cells, you'll have a large market."

Vorbeck is the only U.S. company with dozens of patents on how to make graphene in large batches. The company is pursuing a business model that would leverage its ability to make a lot of graphene with products that target a mass market.

In addition to conductive inks, Vorbeck is targeting the composite materials market. For instance, it can use graphene to produce super-strong carbon fiber materials, such as strings and ropes that can withstand heavy weights.

Vorbeck's production process is so critical to the company's success that its officials would not let a Baltimore Sun reporter and photographer tour certain parts of its production facility. Company officials feared any photographs of the equipment would help competitors deduce its methods for producing graphene.

"We guard our intellectual property very carefully," said Silverberg.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

twitter.com/gussent

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