Graphene has been called tomorrow’s silicon because of its conductive properties, cheap price and attractive traits like being strong and thin. But because the use of graphene in electronics is so new –- it was first made less than a decade ago by University of Manchester researchers – there aren’t a ton of ways to make the stuff commercially at scale yet.
But a startup out of Jessup, Maryland, called Vorbeck Materials, is one of the leaders in both producing graphene and also dreaming up products from batteries to wearables that can be made using the so-called miracle material. Vorbeck was founded in 2006 to commercialize a proprietary graphene material developed by Princeton chemical engineers Ilhan Aksay and Robert Prud’homme, and the company has a ton-scale factory churning out graphene in Jessup.
There’s a bit of a graphene gold rush happening right now, with a flurry of patents being filed, and Lux Research estimates that graphene will grow from a paltry $9 million market in 2012 to a $126 million market in 2020 — that’s a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent. At the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Summit this week, I got a chance to check out four novel products that Vorbeck worked on in conjunction with partners.
In 2009 Vorbeck commercialized its graphene ink, called Vor-ink, which the company says was the world’s first commercial graphene-based product. In the photo above the paper has been printed with the ink and can conduct an electrical charge. Vorbeck’s Director of Development Christy Martin told me that the paper is really durable and demonstrated that property by crumpling it up into a little ball.
Graphene can also be used as an additive in batteries to give them more energy density (amount of energy they can store), boost the charge rate, and increase the cycle life. In conjunction with Princeton and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Vorbeck has been working on graphene-based battery technology. The ARPA-E awarded Vorbeck a $1.5 million grant to develop a lithium sulfur battery for hybrid vehicles.
Graphene in wearables
This messenger bag uses Vorbeck’s graphene ink to enable an embedded electronic in the strap. Mobile devices can be charged and an embedded indicator light can show when gadgets are charging and to turn on and off an safety bike light. Vorbeck launched and showed off the bag at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Graphene security packaging
Vorbeck worked with packaging company MWV to create a graphene-based package for products that need an embedded security system. Picture the security systems that places like Walgreens uses now for products: razors behind glass or clamped down with plastic sensors. But with the graphene package a sensor can detect when the package has been moved, taken out of the building or even cut open. Graphene is cheap enough that it adds just a couple of pennies to the packaging cost, said Martin. Home Depot and CVS stores in some areas of the east coast are already using this packaging.
A close up of the embedded graphene under the surface of the outer layer of the Vorbeck packaging.
Vorbeck has raised at least $4.7 million in funding, and has less than 50 employees. Lux Research says that Vorbeck, along with XG Sciences, are the leading graphene startups, but also says there’s a wave of new graphene startups emerging including Graphene Technologies, Grafoid, National Nanomaterials, Xolve, and Haydale.