(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series that is also part of an ongoing spotlight on some of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region’s entrepreneurial heroes. This article and the first one in the series focused on Sam Weaver, President and Chief Executive Officer of Proton Power Inc. Today, the topic is the developments in producing graphene from biochar.)
By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
In December 2016, when teknovation.biz last spoke with Sam Weaver, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Proton Power Inc., the company had just discovered that it may have been “accidentally” making graphene for six years.
Graphene is one of the most conductive substances in the world. In this teknovation.biz article, Weaver mentioned that the company decided to test the biochar co-product that resulted from burning biomass in Proton Power’s Cellulose to Hydrogen process (CHyP) to see if it was graphene. It was. (Learn more about Proton Power’s CHyP process in this teknovation.biz article.)
At the time, Weaver and the team at Proton Power wanted to do more testing to see what they had. Several years and tests later, Weaver said they have found that Proton Power’s graphene is five times more conductive than the typical product found on the market because it is turbostratic. This means that its atomic spacing has opened-up. This, Weaver said, can be crucial particularly in making batteries because it means instead of using lithium, which is rare, you can use sodium, which is one of the most common elements on the planet.
“We are the cheapest, highest quality manufacturer on the planet of true graphene,” Weaver said, adding, “That’s become the dog that’s wagging the tail.”
In addition to being highly conductive, graphene is corrosion resistant, harder than diamonds, and stronger than steel. It’s also sustainable. At this point, you may be asking why it’s not more widely used, and the answer is because it’s expensive. Weaver said that at one point he spoke with a company selling graphene for as much as $125,000 per gram.
“For it to be a real product, if you’re going to put it in concrete, asphalt, high-volume batteries, paint, and that kind of stuff, you just can’t do it at those expensive prices,” he said.
Since the graphene is a by-product of the CHyP process, Weaver said Proton Power is hoping to sell it at closer to $1.50 a gram. As for building products using graphene, Proton Power has funded battery research at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Weaver said a graphene battery could potentially be used in an electric vehicle.
Proton Power is also looking into adding graphene to concrete and asphalt. Graphene would help to reduce the water penetration of both concrete and asphalt, which would mean less cracks and damage. Weaver said the team is working on a recipe that has the right ratio of graphene, and that Proton Power has found that less is more.
Initially, Weaver said, “We thought we were going to have to pay to landfill the biochar.” But that wasn’t the case. Even before Proton Power determined the biochar contained graphene, the company found several agricultural uses for biochar. As a soil supplement, it helps plants grow more quickly and produce more fruit.
“The biochar just serves as a great host environment for the natural microbes that are in the soil,” Weaver said.
It can also be fed to cattle. Studies have shown that cattle have higher body weight and produce fewer emissions when biochar is added to their diet. The biochar also helps soil hold water better, which means up to 70 percent less watering.
Because they can use the biochar in planting, Proton Power’s CHyP process is carbon negative. Although the company began using this process years ago, Proton Power continues to update it. In 2018, a group from the Dominican Republic helped Proton Power modify the system so it could take in municipal waste instead of just biomass.
Weaver also said that Proton Power recently registered its cellulose fuel that comes from burning biomass with both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.
To learn more about Sam Weaver and Proton Power, click here for more teknovation.biz articles.