In partnership with NETL, researchers at Rice University are studying how an advanced conversion process called flash Joule heating (FJH) can inexpensively produce high-value graphene from carbon ore using scalable technology, producing a valuable additive for next-generation technology and advanced manufacturing methods.
Composed of a single layer of carbon atoms tightly bound in a honeycomb-like pattern, graphene has incredible mechanical and electrical properties – tensile strength over two hundred times greater than structural steel and electrical conductivity greater than copper.
Graphene shows promise for a wide variety of applications including composite building materials (such as cement, concrete, and plastics), automotive and aerospace parts, batteries and supercapacitors for energy storage, or as an electrical conductor. For example, just 0.1 weight% of graphene as an additive to concrete can result in a stronger, lighter concrete material that can have a longer useful life and a reduced carbon footprint. Just 1% addition of graphene to asphalt can triple the lifetime of a road.
The FJH process is a low-cost, energy-efficient method to convert almost any carbon-based precursor into quantities of graphene in less than a second. Although graphene can be produced through other processes, those other methods either don’t produce large amounts of high-quality graphene or require high-energy processes. FJH avoids these trade-offs.
By using the FJH process, the Rice University research team successfully met and exceeded their key milestone of producing a total of 1 kilogram (kg) of graphene in one day. Despite delays caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the team met the milestone five months ahead of schedule. Through automation, the team produced the 1 kg in less than two hours which exceeded the goal by 20 times.
“This represents a significant step forward regarding graphene production capabilities,” said Jason Hissam, NETL project manager. “The ability to produce such a valuable substance from our country’s carbon ore resources means we have potentially revolutionary uses for it beyond power generation.”
With future electrical enhancements to the charging system, the Rice University research team expects to double the production rate and beat the goal by a factor of 40 by the project’s conclusion. Going forward, the researchers plan to optimize the system for higher-controlled operation and integrate the process control to artificial intelligence/machine learning for complete autonomous control based upon the carbon ore input source and the desired final use of the graphene.
A company, Universal Matter Ltd., has been spun-off from Rice University, and with other DOE support, is further scaling the process to reach the goal of 1 ton per day graphene production by Q2 2022, and then much greater growth from there.
“The production of an inexpensive, abundant graphene resource from carbon ore could provide a boost to jobs in economically distressed regions as well as the U.S. manufacturing industry,” Hissam said. “The work at Rice University is one key example of NETL’s research portfolio that includes more than 1,000 research activities across all 50 states, with total award values that exceed $5 billion.”
NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. Through its world-class scientists, engineers and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans, advancing environmental justice and revitalizing the economies of disadvantaged communities. Leveraging the power of workforce inclusivity and diversity, highly skilled innovators at NETL’s research laboratories in Albany, Oregon; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania conduct a broad range of research activities that support DOE’s mission to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy and environmental challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.