Making the 'wonder material'

Graphene is taking the world of physics by storm, with new applications cropping up almost weekly. Daniel Stolyarov describes how he and his wife, Elena Polyakova, turned the graphene boom into a business.

Daniel Stolyarov

A little less than two years ago, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of a new form of carbon called graphene. This single-layer hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms has attracted a tremendous amount of attention in the scientific world thanks to its fascinating physical properties. For example, the electrons in graphene behave somewhat like photons, with zero effective mass and an ability to move through the material almost without interacting with the carbon atoms of its lattice. 

This makes graphene an attractive material for electronics, and scientists have proposed using it – instead of silicon – to make very fast transistors. 

Graphene is also a transparent conductor and can be used for flexible solar cells and touchscreens. Finally, it is extremely strong and impermeable to liquids and gases.

When Geim and Novoselov isolated graphene for the first time back in 2004, they famously employed a method called "micromechanical cleavage", using sticky tape to peel single layers of graphene off a block of graphite and transfer them to another surface. This method is good for preparing samples of graphene for scientific experiments, but it is absolutely unsuitable for any practical applications. Since then, scientists have developed many other methods for graphene preparation, but these methods are more complicated and require specific machinery and skills.

My wife, Elena Polyakova, and I started our company, Graphene Laboratories, with the idea of providing graphene to scientists who do not have the skills to make it themselves. Based in Long Island, New York, the company manufactures and sells various forms of graphene to researchers and industrial companies around the world. We also provide consulting support to inventors who are finding new uses for this amazing material, we are involved in many collaborative projects with scientific groups in universities, and we have our own research programme on novel 3D graphene structures.

When we started in 2009, the whole company could fit in the second bedroom of our house. Today, we have a well-equipped laboratory with a pilot-scale facility for manufacturing graphene wafers at the Stony Brook Business Incubator near the Brookhaven National Laboratory. We have eight team members, and about half of us work on the scientific side, while the others (including Elena, our chief executive) work on business aspects such as creating marketing materials, supporting customers and managing deliveries of our products. We are already one of the world's largest manufacturers of graphene coatings, and we are actively looking to recruit more people to help expand the business.

Seeking something useful
Graphene research crosses boundaries between physics and chemistry, so it seems appropriate that my own scientific background is a mixture of these. My mother was a high-school chemistry teacher, and chemistry was my first love. As a student, I spent all my free time in the chemistry lab, and between 1988 and 1992 I participated in the chemistry division of Russia's Scientific Olympics. However, I was also interested in physics, so when it came time to choose where I would go to university and what I would study, it was a tough choice. In the end, I decided that studying chemical physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology sounded like a perfect match.

As an undergraduate, I did some research in the field of cryogenic chemistry, and I continued this type of work as a PhD student in chemical physics at the University of Southern California in the US. Elena and I worked in the same laboratory, studying small and extremely cold clusters of helium called nanodroplets. It was an interesting project, but I needed to pick a different area for my postdoctoral research. As it happens, the complicated laser system I developed for my PhD work was very similar to the laser system required for electron accelerators. So after I finished my PhD, in 2005 I moved to Long Island to work at Brookhaven's Accelerator Test Facility – first as a postdoc, and then as an assistant scientist.

At around the same time, Elena moved to the nearby University of Columbia, where her postdoc work involved imaging graphene using a scanning-tunnelling microscope. We collaborated on several projects, including the discovery that nanoscale bubbles form in graphene when it is exposed to accelerated protons. But although I enjoyed working at Brookhaven, after a while I found that people in the accelerator community leaned too much towards simulation work for my taste. Fundamental research is challenging and rewarding, but it is not always clear how society can extract value out of the results of such research. I found myself wanting to use my knowledge to create something useful, something that people needed and would be willing to pay for.

From stealth to success
Elena and I had often talked about starting our own business together, but as scientists we lacked experience working in industry. That is why I quit my job at Brookhaven in 2009 and became a research scientist at Energetiq Technology Inc., a small Boston-based firm that makes light sources for a variety of research and industrial applications. Elena left her post at Columbia and we moved to the Boston area together, where we filed the incorporation papers for Graphene Laboratories later that same year.

At this point, our company was in so-called "stealth mode". Elena was its only full-time employee, we were trying to retrieve the patent licence on an invention she had made when she was a postdoc at Columbia University, and we were also looking for venture capital. But after this approach failed, we decided to launch a website, Graphene Supermarket, offering research-grade graphene materials.

The website did well from the start, but after the Nobel prize was awarded to Geim and Novoselov in October 2010, it really took off. Our revenue jumped overnight, and we could barely handle all the orders and requests. By this time we were using research facilities at Brookhaven's Center for Functional Nanomaterials, so every Friday after I finished my duties at Energetiq, I got into my car and drove for almost five hours to Long Island, where I joined Elena in working on our research.

I enjoyed every minute of my two years at Energetiq, and the business skills I learned from being in an industrial environment were very useful. But our company was demanding more and more of my free time, and in 2011 a product that I had helped develop and improve at Energetiq, the Laser-Driven Light Source, won the Prism Award at the SPIE Photonics West conference. With that, I felt like my job at Energetiq was done – it was time to let people from the marketing department take the lead. I left and started working for Graphene Laboratories full time.

In a typical week, I spend a lot of my time communicating with customers. Graphene Supermarket has nearly 3000 customers in over 70 countries, and almost every day we are contacted by a number of people who have invented a new application involving graphene. We use our expertise to help these customers modify graphene into the form most suited to their applications. For example, right now we are collaborating with scientists from Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider who want to use graphene in the form of long ribbons a few microns wide to check the spin alignment of the protons in their beams.

Most of our customers are researchers in universities, national laboratories and the R&D departments of technology-oriented companies. However, we are also contacted from time to time by graphene enthusiasts: ordinary people who read about the material's outstanding properties in the news, and who have their own ideas about potential uses. And some of our most important customers are high schools and science museums – thanks to the special set of affordable educational kits we developed to demonstrate the outstanding properties of graphene to young scientists.

A little bit of everything
When Elena and I started the company, we were both absolutely excited about graphene, and we felt that the company's mission was to help bring this amazing material from scientific laboratories into everyday life. This is a challenging and by no means boring task, and it means that I spend lots of time communicating with smart and creative people. But there are a few down sides. Compared with the previous jobs I have held, there is absolutely no job security; together with freedom comes responsibility. As a result, Elena and I are always thinking about how the field will evolve and trying to predict the next product to interest the graphene community.

One thing that I find helpful is my diverse background. A university professor might be able to focus on a single narrow field, but there is no such luxury in my job because the spectrum of potential graphene applications is very wide, taking in not only physics but also chemistry and biology. Knowing a little bit about everything helps a lot, as it allows me to grasp ideas quickly. And I never dismiss an idea without giving it a thought – no matter how crazy it seems at first glance. After all, a crazy idea can be the beginning of an exciting journey, as it was for us when we started a company to make graphene.

Daniel Stolyarov is the chief technology officer at Graphene Laboratories, email daniel.stolyarov@graphenelab.com


This article appears in the August 2012 issue of Physics World



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