September 25, 2014 at 11:49 am

Botte: New Process Allows Coal to Produce Graphene

By Angelita Faller

At 200 times stronger than steel and only one atom thick, graphene is both the hardest existing substance and the thinnest material ever obtained. Graphene is light, bendable, transparent, and extremely conductive.

“Graphene has excellent properties. The market applications are enormous,” said Gerardine Botte, the Russ Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of the Center for Electrochemical Engineering Research (CEER), during her Physics and Astronomy Colloquium presentation Friday, Sept. 12, in Walter Hall.

Because of its unique combination of properties, graphene holds promise for any number of nanomaterial applications from electrochemical electrodes in lithium ion batteries to solar cells. It’s no wonder this novel substance has been labeled the “wonder material.”

“So if it is so exciting, if it has all these different market properties, what is the problem? Why aren’t we using it every day?” Botte asked.

While graphene has amazing potential for applications in nanotechnology, it also has an amazingly high cost. The current cost of bulk graphene is estimated to be $230 per kilogram. In order to be used for market applications, graphene would need to cost around $11 per kilogram, according to BCC Research.
The high cost of graphene is linked to the cost of graphite, which has risen from $1,000 per ton in 2009 to $3,400 per ton in 2014. Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms, extracted from graphite, so as the cost of graphite rises, so does graphene.

Botte’s research team has come up with a novel solution to retrieve graphene without the high cost of graphite. They can use coal electrolysis to extract graphene from coal char. She calls it C2G, or the Coal to Graphene process.

“The beautiful thing about using coal, because coal has such a small price compared to graphite, is we can get the price of graphene to under $11 per kilogram,” she said.

Coal electrolysis is a process used to convert coal to hydrogen, liquid fuels, and high-value products with carbon capturing.

“What we’re doing is we’re manipulating the surface of the coal by introducing hydrogen that creates aromatic compounds. We’re basically aromatizing the coal. When you heat the coal with this layer, those aromatic compounds lift the coal and now become graphene. They synthesize. It grows,” Botte explained.

Since Ohio has a strong coal industry, Botte has already partnered with the Ohio Coal Development Office to refine and optimize the C2G synthesis process. This research is slated to begin a Phase 2 in November.

If successful, Botte’s team has plans to turn CEER into a production facility that will sell graphene samples commercially through its website and trade shows. This should accelerate the commercialization of the technology by leading to a commercial partnership with Ohio University.

In addition to creating a new use for Ohio coal, Botte is also excited by another benefit of the C2G process: the ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“It’s a new market and industry for Ohio Coal. It could bring the cost of graphene to the commercial needs, and it is helping to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. One of the ways is that we’re not funneling coal into power plants. Instead of using the coal to burn it, now you use coal to create a material that is more efficient than other materials. So you can save energy,” she said.

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