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Finding low-cost way to produce a high-value product

USDA Forest Service scientists convert paper pulp byproduct to graphene

Tom Moreland and Shannon Kelleher
March 19, 2018 at 8:30am

Just one atom in thickness, graphene is the thinnest material on earth. Courtesy photo by Flickr/ Nanoinitiative Bayern GmbH.
Just one atom in thickness, graphene is the thinnest material on earth. Courtesy photo by Flickr/ Nanoinitiative Bayern GmbH.
Measuring one million times less than the width of a human hair, graphene is harder than diamonds and 200 times stronger than steel. Small, strong, and flexible, it is the most conductive material on earth and has the potential to charge a cell phone in just five seconds or to upload a terabit of data in one. It can be used to filter salt from water, develop bullet-stopping body armor, and create biomicrorobots.

These incredible properties have captured the attention of scientists and industry specialists around the world, all seeking to harness graphene’s potential for applications in electronics, energy, composites and coatings, biomedicine, and other industries.

Derived from graphite, the same graphite used in pencils and many other common use products, graphene is, ironically, one of the most expensive materials on the planet. This is because the process of chemically peeling off, or exfoliating, a single layer of graphene from graphite ore is cost-prohibitive on an industrial scale.

USDA Forest Service scientists have developed a new way to produce graphene, pictured here, from lignin, a low-value byproduct of the paper industry pulping process. Courtesy photo USDA Forest Service
USDA Forest Service scientists have developed a new way to produce graphene, pictured here, from lignin, a low-value byproduct of the paper industry pulping process. Courtesy photo USDA Forest Service

However, US Forest Service Scientist Dr. Zhiyong Cai and his research team, which includes co-owners Mississippi State University and Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) partner Domtar Paper Company, have developed a more cost-effective way to produce graphene from lignin rather than graphite. Considered a low-value byproduct of the paper making industry, lignin makes the cell walls of plants rigid and woody but is also an abundant source of renewable carbon.

Cai’s team has been working on this research since 2010, when the group first received funding through a Biomass Research and Development Initiative grant. This research led to the filing of two patents.

The Forest Service pilot plant has produced a small quantity of graphene that  can be  provided to university and industry collaborators for further testing. Cai and his team are now working to further characterize lignin-graphene properties, including electronic/thermal conductivity, and streamlining the lignin-to-graphene conversion process. They will also thoroughly analyze the safety of lignin-to-graphene production.

Plane in flight
The availability of large quantities of graphene will have a huge impact on the development of lighter and stronger structural materials for the automotive, aerospace, and building industries. An airplane with wings made from a graphene-based composite would be lighter and require less fuel. Courtesy photo by Flickr/Willy Vermaelen.
The availability of large quantities of graphene will have a huge impact upon the development of lighter and stronger structural materials for the automotive, aerospace, and building industries, among others.

 

A new book titled Graphene by Les Johnson and Joseph E. Neany sums up the state of graphene applications today: “Just about all of the economic superpowers across the globe have some sort of focus on graphene…Whoever cracks that code first is really going to have a major economic leg up across the global market for graphene itself.”

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