Imagine conducting an instantly accurate test for Lyme disease or Syphilis -- or potentially hundreds of other illnesses -- right in your doctor’s office with a single drop of blood. Mike Patterson, a Wharton MBA alum and CEO of the University City Science Center
-based Graphene Frontiers
, says it’ll happen within a few years.
The company was founded by Dr. Charlie Johnson, Dr. Zhengtang Luo and Patterson in 2010 out of the University of Pennsylvania
’s UPstart program
. Recently recognized as one of 18 Pennsylvania Companies to Watch in 2015
, Graphene Frontiers just landed their first Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) state tax credit
But what is graphene, and why do we need it?
Put on your science hats.
Researchers at the University of Manchester first isolated this material in 2004, winning
the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.
"Graphene is simply a single atomic layer of carbon," explains Patterson.
If you’re feeling fancy, call it an allotrope of carbon, like graphite or a diamond. It’s incredibly strong: proportionally 100 times stronger than steel, yet flexible, transparent, and the best conductor of heat and electricity mankind has ever discovered. It has myriad applications, from solar cells to touch screens to desalinization.
Take your pencil’s core. Imagine cutting it so thin you have a slice of graphite only one atom thick. Bingo: graphene.
But it’s not so easy.
Graphene manufacturers don’t shave carbon down. Instead, they use a carbon-containing gas like methane and a process called chemical vapor deposition to build the graphene literally atom by atom.
What Dr. Luo discovered and patented in a physics lab at Penn was a way to do this at normal atmospheric pressure, instead of in an expensive, unwieldy vacuum chamber, like everyone else has been doing until now.
With the help of a two-step National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research
grant totaling almost $900,000, Graphene Frontiers entered the global market.
Forget little strips of graphene. The company is pioneering a way to grow it in massive rolls on copper foil, and then remove it from that copper with hydrolysis (an electric current that separates the hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyte/water solution) rather than using what Patterson calls "a really nasty bath of chemicals" to dissolve the copper and collect the graphene.
"We can just bubble off the graphene and re-use the copper," he says. "[It's] very important for cost and environmental concerns."
Right now the company is focused on graphene in biosensor applications, and hopes to partner with a major diagnostics firm. Patterson says the future of point-of-care diagnostics will be the graphene field-effect transistor (GFET). In short, a strip of graphene ten microns wide (one-tenth the width of a human hair, for us mortals). A specific antibody attached to it will, with the help of an electric current, be able to instantly detect bacteria or proteins in a tiny blood sample (instead of testing multiple vials of blood for an immune response).
In other words, no lab technicians with pipettes and goggles.
So what will Graphene Frontiers do with the new tax credit? It’s not just about physics and chemistry. The money will help the company hire a new production engineer and lab technician to produce more GFET applications and tests.
"It’s all about the people," insists Patterson.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source. Mike Patterson, Graphene Frontiers