How do you manufacture huge amounts of graphene for a fraction of the cost? Printing presses

Graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms with amazing physical properties, could carry the digital world into an age beyond silicon. But it might be helped along by a technique borrowed from something quite analog: the newspaper printing press.

Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation awarded University of Pennsylvania graphene startup Graphene Frontiers $744,600 to develop technology that makes it faster and cheaper to produce graphene on a large scale. I recently caught up with CEO Michael Patterson who described how roll-to-roll manufacturing will enable graphene to make its entrance into the big industries.

Roll-to-roll manufacturing could allow graphene to be made at large scales. Photo courtesy of Korea University.

Roll-to-roll manufacturing could allow graphene to be made at large scales. This photo shows a similar technology being developed at Korea University. Photo courtesy of Korea University.

In 2010, it cost tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture a piece of graphene smaller than a postage stamp. Since then, laborious methods like splintering off slices of graphene from graphite — the stuff that makes up pencil lead — or synthesizing it in a furnace at ultra-high temperatures have given way to room-temperature, large-scale methods that promise to be much cheaper.

Graphene Frontiers’ big contribution is that its method works at normal pressure, negating the need to make graphene in a vacuum.

A sheet of graphene. Photo courtesy of Graphene Frontiers.

A sheet of graphene. Photo courtesy of Graphene Frontiers.

“Where we’re headed is making meter-wide sheets,” Patterson said. “We’re (already) making bigger pieces big enough to cover an iPad. What roll-to-roll means is we’ll be able to produce large rolls of graphene … and that will drive the cost down to pennies per square inch. That’s where it becomes really interesting for all of these applications.”

Graphene could play a big role in the electronics industry, where its flexibility and transparency make it ideal for wearable device screens. Its structure also gives it unmatched physical properties when it comes to strength and conductivity.

“That combination of properties I believe is going to disrupt several billion dollar industries,” Patterson said. “A really interesting indicator of how interesting this material is is it was first discovered in 2004 and it won the Nobel in 2010. Six years is a ridiculously short amount of time to a Nobel.”

Despite the short timespan, Patterson said Graphene Frontiers will be ready to commercialize several applications within a few years. By early 2015, it will have a roll-to-roll machine prototype ready. The three big applications will be desalinization and filtration, biosensing and electronics. Patterson expects to enter the food and water safety industries and, by 2018, healthcare.

“Graphene is really a very special material,” Patterson said.