USDA Forest Service scientists convert paper pulp byproduct to graphene
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.
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.
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.”