Q&A with Dr. Gordon Chiu, Vice President and Co-Founder, Grafoid Inc.
Invest in Graphene featured a newsletter with Dr. Chiu that is now available to all readers of the website.
Thank you for agreeing to engage in a Q&A with investingraphene.com Dr. Chiu, it’s a real coup for us to have someone at the very heart of graphene science and industry feature on the site. With a reputation for being an “execution-driven businessman” and holding a slew of qualifications in chemistry and medicine I imagine you will be able to clarify much about the science of graphene whilst giving some real insight into the financial opportunity that graphene presents.
Q1. Graphene is often described as a “wonder material” with the potential to change the world. Ballistic conductance, zero band gap and incredible strength are all frequently cited as being the defining features of graphene but what properties of graphene do you consider to be the most scientifically interesting and what products will be developed as a result of them?
Dr. Chiu: There are literally so many possibilities so, to keep my answer short, one example is unlocking graphene’s incredible strength when combined with other materials.
Some very interesting applications, as we’re discovering, are destined for use in the infrastructural sector. As a new, fatigue-resistant, fiber-reinforced composite (FRC) material, much has yet to be discovered by the science community about graphene as a nano-filler material. The use of graphene in FRC systems is still very early. The kinds of technologically advanced building materials (TABMs) that will result from graphene incorporation will provide a level of toughness that improve the safety, reliability, and cost effectiveness of FRCs. Beyond infrastructure, composites are increasingly becoming the material of choice in the aerospace, automobile, biomedical, marine and sports industries, to name a few.
The chief obstacle to unlocking graphene’s wondrous properties so far is the staggering cost of production. One of the cheaper ways to make graphene is exfoliation from oxidation of graphite followed by reductive chemistry. This recipe is typically called the Hummer’s or modified Hummer’s producing reduced graphene oxide (rGO). The problems associated with Hummer’s are that graphene’s natural properties are compromised with many scientific papers reporting lesser results when using rGO. The numerous chemical steps involved in the rGO production process also add a significant environmental and business cost into the supply chain.
Q2. Graphene, to my knowledge, certainly seems to have the potential to revolutionize our lives; yet, one of the fears associated with graphene, and nanomaterials in general, is the toxicological impact that they may have. Research has been conducted on how particles might accumulate in the food chain and how they stick to the bodies of insects, and fears have been raised about the potential for nanoparticles to aggregate in the lungs of people involved in the production process. As a doctor of medicine what are your thoughts on the proper assessment, examination and management of these risks? Is it too early to say that graphene poses a threat to health, and if so is it also too early to say that it doesn’t?
Dr. Chiu: Agree, and this is true of anything new. We function at the macro-level so anything micro and certainly at the nano-level is going to have unrealized consequences. Much information has been published regarding safety and handling issues for single-walled (SW) and multi-walled (MW) carbon nanotubes (CNTs). In the journal Nanotech, Issue #6, the world’s only nanotechnology business magazine, it specifically discusses the safety and toxicology issues of SW & MW, CNTs as well as other nano-sized metals.
Graphene, being neither of these materials will have a uniquely different safety profile. Graphene is well known to recombine via pi-pi stacking into its macro state as graphite and we know graphite is non-toxic and very safe.
However, health issues may arise in the manufacturing of scalable reduced graphene oxide (rGO) – which is not the graphene discovered and reported in 2004. The environmental burdens associated with the oxidation/reduction chemistry and the safety profile of novel graphene derivatives known as graphene oxide (GO), reduced graphene oxide (rGO), partially reduced graphene oxide (PrGO) are unknown and maybe questionable because they do not readily recombine back to the safety of natural graphite.
Therefore, oxidized derivatives of graphene are a different story and may need to be handled with care. Furthermore, we may need to be concerned if oxidized forms of graphene (GOs) and reduced forms of graphene oxides (rGOs) escape into the environment. The Grafoid breakthrough process obviates the need for using strong acids, oxidants and reducing agents and makes bilayer/trilayer graphene not rGOs.
Q3. As a Vice President and co-founder of Grafoid Inc. you are at the science helm of the joint venture with Focus Metals, a Canadian Mining company that has performed extremely well in recent months. With 100% ownership of the much heralded Lac Knife graphite deposit in Quebec, Focus Metals, which will soon become Focus Graphite, is in a prime position to become the foremost supplier of graphite for the graphene market. The company plans, based on its 8.1 million resource estimate, provide the productive capacity of some 25,000 tons per year for 40 years, and the grade of graphite is reputedly second to none.
How do you see the graphite market changing over the next two years as the mine goes into full production and how do you envisage becoming, as the Grafoid website suggests, “the global standard for economically scalable graphene.”?
Dr. Chiu: Given that the Lac Knife, Quebec deposit is a “super-concentrate” graphite deposit (“super” means any deposit having a graphite concentration greater than 15%) enables the evaluation of possibilities of transforming graphene from graphite without using the oxidation/reduction chemistries. Grafoid Inc. was created to invest in and commercially exploit the advantages that Lac Knife’s extraordinary physical properties provided to us. Today, Grafoid’s breakthrough process can transform any graphite source into graphene. From that starting point, we created a graphene source by adopting and applying our own development principles. I call them our S.E.E.K. principles. And they are:
1. Safe, secure, supply (Quebec is recognized as one of the best mining jurisdictions in the world. The Lac Knife property is accessible by road and rail, has an abundant and inexpensive source of electric power and the nearby rail line connects to a deep water port.)
2. Effective Graphene (our discovery avoids strong acids, oxidation/reduction chemistry and produces an economically scalable, uncompromised and conductive high energy density graphene.)
3. Environmentally low impact (by eliminating strong acids, toxic oxidizing and reducing agents, the capital clean up costs to neutralize these harsh chemicals is completely avoided)
4. Key performance indicators (KPIs) indexed to produce unique applications, enabling mass production and resolving problems such as extending the fatigue life in fibre-reinforced composites, as an example. Others may become a possibility.
Q4. Using the premium grade graphite from Lac Knife, Grafoid employs a top down exfoliation process to produce graphene of the highest quality. Always keen to learn something about the science of graphene could you perhaps elucidate further on the exfoliation method and suggest why it is eco-friendly? At the back of my mind I have the thought of the two most recent bottom-up production methods involving dry ice and microorganisms, and wonder how you see Grafoid’s methods competing in such a rapidly changing field.
Dr. Chiu: The Earth has already completed a natural chemical vapour deposition (CVD) method with aging and settling over millions of years to create graphite possibly via the abundant natural methane gas. This earth-derived CVD, led to the discovery in 2004, by Nobel Laureate, Andre Geim that graphite could be exfoliated into graphene using a super cheap mechanism now known as the scotch tape method. Therefore, making graphite into graphene via an exfoliation method is going to be most direct. In fact, it is already demonstrated via the Hummer’s method that graphene can be made abundantly with the two major exceptions: environmental impact and compromising graphene when making rGO. On the topic of environmental impact, the Hummer’s uses strong acids, toxic oxidizing and reducing agents. So the concept was very clear. Eliminate the Hummer’s method and you should be able to go from a six carbon graphite into a six carbon graphene.
Human-derived CVD has its role in making large sheets of single layer graphene. This provides a different area of applications that will be for things like replacing indium tin oxide (ITO) and transistors that require single layer graphene. While the cost to make single layer graphene will moderate, the base cost will always be economically constrained by the equipment, the costs of energy, etc. If the source is dry ice (CO2), cockroach legs or microorganisms, the cost to convert something greater or lesser than six carbons into six carbon graphene is vastly more expensive than peeling six carbons of graphene from six carbons of pre-formed graphite. Future large-scale industrial applications will require extremely low-cost graphene materials with super-properties and it is important to be solving the graphene bottleneck with this kind of approach.
Q5. In a similar vein, how do companies that produce graphene by a CVD process, impact on the graphene investment market? Surely the strength of Focus Metals/Focus Graphite is based upon the need for high quality graphite flakes and as the market changes and production methods improve the need for such high quality graphite will diminish. As production methods improve is it not foreseeable that graphene could be produced from lower quality graphite and possibly even other sources of carbon?
Dr. Chiu: I’ll answer your last two questions first and then address your CVD question.
Graphite is a crystalline lattice of carbon. Its applications are vast and growing. In the example that I provided question 1, I could have added that some very exciting graphene application opportunities are related to lithium-ion batteries and large-scale energy storage which also require inexpensive, high performance materials. Once you consider graphene, the applications of graphite become exponential.
Scientists, engineers and manufacturers prefer to work with crystalline materials. They have a superior behaviour over amorphous powders for many applications and again, cost is a driving factor. This is why the investment and consumer communities are focused on technology-grade graphite flakes. Industrial price spikes for graphite aren’t driven by demand alone, but rather, a fundamental, evolutionary shift in what consumers demand from manufacturers.
Eventually, I believe the demand for applications will create what I call “investment growth grade graphite” – a further refinement of the term “technology grade.”
Natural crystalline graphene, that is non-amorphous graphene, has properties that are constantly being discovered. It is too early to tell which kinds of graphite deposits are more suitable to making graphene using Grafoid’s process methodology. In time, this differentiation will define industrial demands for new varieties of graphene. Some graphite sources will be more capable than others in meeting yield, scalability, quality and location criteria when applied against our S.E.E.K. principles.
Focus’ Lac Knife graphite established a benchmark. It will be interesting to weigh and investigate other deposits’ performances. Our graphene exfoliation and transformation is agnostic. It means we can apply our production methodology to any graphite source. For Focus Metals/Focus Graphite investors, it means they also become an early stage investor in Grafoid.
Regarding your CVD question, CVD-produced graphene is used for different applications requiring large, single layered sheets or “big islands” of graphene used for example, as replacements for indium tin oxide (ITO) and transistors. For applications such as energy storage, batteries and reinforcing infrastructural materials, those applications require “tiny islands” of bilayered, trilayered graphene. The heavy costs attached to CVD come from the process of chemically depositing the crystals to form big sheets. Therefore, spending all that energy and equipment to make big island graphene only to try and break the big island into tiny islands of graphene would be a poor use of investment dollars. Along with other fundamental problems that would result, CVD to manufacture tiny bilayered/trilayered graphenes would be a wasteful on an energetic level.
Another interesting item is that the reported mobility of CVD single layered graphene compared with exfoliated single layered graphene is that the CVD produces a lower mobility. Reference: Journal of Applied Physics, Effective mobility of single-layer graphene transistors as a function of channel dimensions, 109, 104511 (2011).
That said, however, while the two graphene worlds are separate, they could come together on certain applications. For example, mixing the really inexpensively derived tiny bilayered/trilayered graphenes with the large CVD graphene sheets could create a product that is more cost effective. This is an area that Grafoid is deeply interested and engaged in through key partnerships.
Q6. Economics will inevitably play a large part in the viability of graphene. You said in your presentation to the Graphene Conference 2012 in Brussels that: “the challenge for scientists today is to produce pristine graphene for fifty cents per pound or less – down from its current cost of $20,000 per pound.” How quickly do you think this transformation in the market will take place, and what will be the key indicators to look out for that might suggest graphene is becoming a more affordable option for industry?
Dr. Chiu: The cost transformation is already here and it has begun. Different industries that have found uses for graphene but were stymied by the high cost of graphene, or sacrificed performance by using reduced graphene oxides have been contacting Grafoid.
Our Brussels presentation opened the door to a number of industries looking to resolve those cost and performance issues and it has led to the formation of a number of strategic partnerships. We supply access to unadulterated bilayer, trilayer graphene materials along with the unique engineering of our graphene to meet their application requirements. Ultimately, Grafoid provides our industrial partners with the benefits attached to a significant development lead and an advantage over their competitors. Grafoid benefits from the ability to build out its library of tailored graphene morphology (shapes, sizes, decorations) and the ability to vet potential projects and select those with highest practical future use.
Q7. Moving now to perhaps gentler waters, what three pieces of advice would you give a first time investor looking to invest in the graphene market? And running on from that question, how could an investor use those three pieces of advice to inform their decision to invest in Focus Graphite and Grafoid?
Dr. Chiu: I believe that industry leaders and investors really need to read, delineate and do careful due diligence on the state, scope and trends of current research underway in all sectors of the graphene development communities. These are exciting times for me personally. My role is to de-risk and eliminate problems and provide solutions in bringing unique applications to market.
While my chemistry and medical background certainly played a role, it is also my additional training in naturopathic medicine and time spent with geologists, chemists and numerous experts in this field that created this possibility. We should never forget that we must minimize negatively impacting chemistries when making anything. In process chemistry, medicine or any business, it is important to evaluate and derive the most practical solution towards maximizing sustainability. Perhaps this is why people have called me, “execution-driven”.
Certainly, creating greater awareness of the graphite/graphene evolution and its potential benefits to both individual and institutional investors through articles like this tend to provoke investor imagination that leads, hopefully, to an educational starting point.
The graphene story can be extremely complex and requires much time for discovery because of graphene’s infinite possibilities. Interested investors should do their own due diligence and to try to attend as many events on this subject matter so they can be properly informed.
Q8. Grafoid was lead sponsor of the Brussels Graphene Conference 2012. It appears, as you’ve indicated, it was a highly successful event for you personally and corporately.
Dr. Chiu: Yes, indeed. Grafoid, Inc., is now connected to several government and industry groups that have done their own due diligence and identified with our model. There are many unique possibilities with bilayered-trilayered graphenes. Grafoid won’t be going alone into these new graphene ventures. At each event, we continue to generate inquiries that allow us to build relationships with new partners whose application development attempts using rGOs ended in failure, either because of cost or performance issues.
As mentioned, it was a positive surprise to find that a CVD graphene manufacturer has found that mixing our bilayered-trilayered graphenes can reduce the cost of their products without affecting the particular application they are targeting. This could not be done with the many types of rGOs they have already tried. This is another interesting twist in the development of Grafoid Inc. Our future remains very bright and we’ve only just begun to explore and discover graphene’s potential.