Graphene: The miracle material of the 21st Century

Image: Graphene Leaders Canada

This is the first in a series of articles focusing on Alberta’s entrepreneurs and innovators. The articles are intended to highlight the vitality of the province’s innovation space through the personal journey of innovators and entrepreneurs.

In many cases, the articles will be personally written by the subject. Donna Mandau and Dr. Leah Coumont of Edmonton-based Graphene Leaders Canada kick off the initiative. Mandau founded GLC and is president and CEO; Dr. Coumont is the director of research and development.


Over the last few decades, carbon has received a bad name from being immediately associated with climate change, but it is important to remember that carbon dioxide is not the only form of carbon. The element is exceptionally versatile, with nine possible oxidation states and the ability to form strong bonds with a large number of other atoms.

This versatility not only leads to the physical possibility of carbon in the form of CO2, but also allows it to accomplish extraordinary things including being responsible for life, for fuel of many different forms, plastics, and the food we eat.

Recently carbon has found its way into the electronics industry through a host of polymers and carbon allotropes that are making things possible such as flexible, printable electronics and highly compact batteries. This is where carbon starts to get interesting.

Allotropes of carbon have some of the most useful material properties of any material, which is why two Nobel prizes have been awarded to the discovery of the newest: fullerenes and graphene.

Graphene is a particularly powerful example of what carbon can do. It consists of perfectly two-dimensional atomic sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, wherein each carbon atom is bonded to the other carbon atoms.

This is unlike another familiar allotrope of carbon — diamond — where each constituent atom is bonded to four other carbon atoms, giving it a three-dimensional structure.

It is this bonding that gives graphene its incredible properties such as conductivity, and contributes to record setting strength, flexibility, lubricity and chemical resistance. This makes the material extremely useful in a host of applications, including rendering it a powerful starting material for coatings and water treatment applications.

Graphene in theory is not new, as it is the basic structural building block of graphite and has been believed to exist for almost 100 years. The layered structure of graphite was first discovered and published by John Desmond Bernal in 1924.

In 2004, Nobel Laureates Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim isolated graphene, which up to that point had been viewed as an impossible material, demonstrating its metallic conductivity over distances less than one micron.

This work helped to promote graphene as the miracle nanomaterial; an unbelievably thin material (<3 nm) with extraordinary properties on the nanoscale. It is from this work that graphene companies have begun to exploit its properties as a thin film on its own or as a nanoscale additive used to boost the properties of existing materials such as conductivity of both electricity and thermal energy, chemical and UV resistance, barrier properties, lubricity and strength.

The potential of graphene is limitless, and commercial development of graphene enhanced solutions its finding its way into market, with large scale commercialization now clearly on the horizon.

In 2010 many graphene companies were established around the world. Most focused on research of the material, and a handful focused on product development.

One company in Alberta is making progress focused on production of the nanomaterial, and leveraging material science expertise to use graphene in product application development.

Given the near limitless potential applications of graphene, Graphene Leaders Canada Inc. (GLC) has strategically chosen to focus on the development of two technologies that are suited to provide solutions in Alberta with global reach: coatings and filtration.

GLC has developed a protective metal coating that delivers incredible improvements to wear and abrasion resistance when compared to traditional coatings used in the oil and gas industry.

GLC has also developed a truly innovative and unique filtration product which utilizes the properties of graphene to target and adsorb specific contaminants from effluent streams. This technology is applicable in many industries, but close to home we see great opportunity specifically in both oil and gas and mining.

The real “secret sauce” that sets GLC apart is our trade secret method of producing the highest possible quality graphene using a top down approach. This method differs considerably from the widely used bottom up approach, which produces a product that is inherently more at risk to containing impurities.

GLC’s ability to product a liquid graphene material is also a differentiator for the company. GLC calls it “Solution Dynamix,” which is the ability to put graphene into any solution or solvent.

This scalable process ensures that GLC is positioned to grow as required to meet the toughest challenges facing industry, and to provide a truly unique set of technology solutions that will help to drive economic growth and create jobs in Alberta.

It is important to note that for a company like GLC to be truly successful, there must be an environment in place that promotes and supports innovation, and we are pleased to note that Alberta is such a place.

The province has already taken steps to be a leader in the nanotechnologies space, as evidenced by its support in the creation of the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, its work through Alberta Innovates, and the many programs associated with each institution.

We believe that we have a government that recognizes supporting the commercialization of new technologies directly supports the larger goal of diversifying the economy, which benefits all Albertans.

It is a certainty that if Alberta doesn’t innovate in the area of nanotech, then another province or country will, and they will reap the economic advantages associated with being first to market with new and innovative technologies.

If we don’t continue to create a competitive advantage here, then our best and brightest minds will be lured elsewhere for the best nanotech jobs. The results of taking anything other than a leadership position in this emerging market will be that companies here in Canada will be forced to spend money to purchase graphene materials and solutions from other countries, and that the ability to innovate in the graphene space will be reduced due to a lack of intellectual property.

Money that could flow into the province and the country will simply go outside our borders and bring little economic benefit back to our citizens. The European Union and China have both assessed this risk, and consequently have chosen to do something about it by creating large pools of funding (e.g. the Graphene Flagship research initiative) that are being directed into private companies and academic institutions that are focused on graphene research.

As graphene-based technologies around the world transition from the lab to the marketplace, people can expect to see significant changes in their daily lives. As the miracle material of the 21st century, with applications in everything from medicine to household electronics to aviation to the automotive industry to batteries to textiles to coatings to the environment, it is a certainty that graphene will gain rapid adoption in the same way that plastics did over the course of the 20th century.

GLC is determined to win the graphene race and be first to market with readily available consumer and industrial products. We will achieve this with in-house creation of disruptive products, the support of the numerous private investors who see and have seen the potential of this incredible material, the provincial and federal governments who support innovation as a means to create economic growth, and our partners in industry who are as excited about the future as we are.

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