Ian Harvey/Principle Curator
You may not have heard of graphene, but you will know about it’s precursor, graphite. It’s the stuff in pencils and it’s used as a dry lubricant and it has many other applications.
It is considered by some to be the new Black Gold, a material which will be the foundation of the next wave of technology and unlock fossil fuel dependence.
Graphene, however, is something completely different that graphite, though it comes from the same place. It’s generally a mined product which is but a few molecules thick and since it was discovered barely a decade ago it’s become the focus of frenzied research and development across the world.
It’s already been hailed as a miracle material which may hold the answer for efficient energy storage, better solar energy panels, medicines, structures because it is 200 times stronger than steel, 100 times stronger than a diamond.
It may even help make better concrete.
There’s one drawback. It’s really expensive in some forms.
The good news, however, is there are massive graphite deposits in Ontario which investors think may be the key to the next generation of energy technology if nothing else.
And that is a Holy Grail worth chasing.
So while miners dust off defunct properties, the R&D to make graphene from organic waste is ramping up in both Houston Texas and in Mississauga, Ontario.
Researchers at Rice University in Houston have developed and patented a process to zap waste and extract graphene is so promising and could unlock the potential of graphene concrete (see video).
Graphene concrete is lighter, requires less labour and rebar support yet is stronger than traditional concrete, making it attractive as a construction material.
They have leased space at Xerox’s Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga, Ontario, and says Dru Kefalos, Chief Marketing Officer at Universal Matter, the company spun off from the work at Rice University, they’re looking to get an industrial process going within 18 months.
At one time graphene was one of the most expensive products on earth was only isolated in 2002. Ontario is also in the race to produce graphene with the reactivation of the Kearney mine and mill near Algonquin Park which sits on the largest graphite resource outside of China and North Korea. It closed in 1994 when world graphite prices dropped but the lure of graphene – extracted from that mineral – has spurred new interest and investment in the 445-acre Crown land site.
They aim to pull flake graphite – which is consistes of layers of graphene – to build solar cells, transparent conducting electrodes, integrated circuits, rechargeable batteries and ultra-capacitors.
The miner says there is “currently no natural graphite production in the United States and only 12,000 tonnes per year being produced at the two existing facilities in Canada. Ontario Graphite anticipates that, at peak capacity, the Kearney Mine will produce 20,000 tonnes each year of high quality large flake graphite, which will make the Mine the largest producer of graphite in North America.”
Meanwhile, Zen Graphene Solutions is also getting funding to develop graphene concrete in collaboration with the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia to extract and process graphite from its Thunder Bay property.
Graphite is a precursor to graphene and with more supply in a variety of forms each suitable for specific applications prices are dropping. What’s more intriguing is the form which is best as an application for concrete is becoming much more affordable.
The breakthrough needed, both those on the graphene production side and the concrete additive side say, is for a client to commission the graphene concrete for a major project to showcase it’s value and benefits because construction remains an intensely conservative mindsets, resistant to change and risk averse.
With development of other applications, it may yet be concrete which provides the economic stimulus to drive extraction and manufacture of this new Black Gold.
“CenoStar has been in the additives and concrete business for 25 years but this is by far the most exciting opportunity I have seen,” says Foster, it’s not an easy sell despite his faith.
Oil companies are looking at it for wells, he says, because they demand high performance and a clean environmental slate.
“Really it astounds me that the benefits are you increase strength by say 100 per cent but reduce mass by 50 per cent,” he says. “But it comes down to ‘show me’”
Still, he says, the benefits for application in deep sea rigs is palpable.
“No one wants and other Deepwater Horizon (the BP rig which exploded in April 2010) and that was caused by faulty concrete.”
Dimitar Dimov, whose 2014 work at Exeter University in Britain led to a patented formula for graphene concrete, has since founded and is CEO of UK-based Concrene which is seeking to market it.
“I was doing pure research with no pressures to develop a product for business,” he says, recalling the discovery that graphene, in the right sized particles would bond inside concrete and had cementious properties of its own. Not only that the final product had better performance characteristics in terms of flexibility and compressive strength.
“And it was non-pourous,” he says, an important factor in concrete lifestyle since it’s ultimately another benefit to offset the higher initial cost and especially relevant in Canada where the climate of freeze and thaw is highly destructive.
“Graphene comes in all shapes and forms and is being commoditized but not all graphene is suitable for concrete,” he notes.
The first challenge is end of lifecycle, he says, with nanoparticle in graphene powder – between one and 10 layers of the atomic structure – used in concrete turning to a toxic dust when the structure is demolishes or starts to crumble which creates a health and safety issue, much like asbestos.
But fine particles are more expensive while the coarser graphene, some 25 layers instead of 10 atomic layers, is perfect for concrete and its price is dropping.
After trying to interest the Reddy Mix market, he’s now switched focus to the pre-cast market where he thinks graphene concrete’s lighter qualities yet strength will win over interest.
“You can transport more panels per day, install more pre-cast and the higher productivity will also offset costs, though, of course, you’re using less concrete and no rebar which also saves labour costs,” he says.
While graphene has been selling for up to US$3,000 a pound, he says, the reality is the price as been dropping as more sources come on line.
Also, he says, the larger particles cost less, around US$150 a kilogram, but again it’s been a tough sell.
Still, he says, the advantages are found in many bespoke applications such as marine concrete, or bridge foundations because of its impermeability while roads are another promising destination is as shotcrete.
“We’re trying to meet now with developers because they will opt for something which gives them an edge in the market,” he says. He hopes that promising a lower carbon footprint on a project may create a marketing edge for those solicited LEED points.
“Right now it’s a bit of a stand off between us and the industry.”
Meanwhile, anticipating that Dimov and Foster and others are successful in getting construction sector buy in, Universal Matter is busy ramping up to move from the laboratory bench to commercial production and their horizon is surprisingly ambitious.
“We hired four scientists to get started in Texas,” Kefalos says. And now we have nine and hiring three in Mississauga.”
Further, says Universal Matter’s Kefalos, the source material for the process can be any kind of waste, plastic or organic such as food, tires or plastic.
“It works really well with coffee grounds so maybe we should give Tim Horton’s a call,” he joked.