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NETL-Supported Technology Transforms Coal and Coal-Wastes Into Nanomaterial That Is 200 Times Stronger Than Steel
Animated depiction of a graphene molecule.

Inexpensive graphene could improve the performance of almost every material that we interact with daily. Graphene can be used in carbon-metal composites to produce smaller and more efficient electric motors, can be mixed with polymers to increase their performance, can be incorporated into concrete to enhance its strength, and more.

An innovative technology that transforms carbon-rich materials including coal and coal-wastes into high quality graphene for use in a wide range of products is closer to reality as a result of support from NETL — progress that could have positive implications for a wide array of materials that are a part of everyday life.  

Universal Matter, an international research and development company with research facilities in Houston, Texas, received support from NETL’s Carbon Ore Processing Program through a cooperative agreement. The company has demonstrated a breakthrough graphene production technology called Flash Joule Heating (FJH), which can transform carbonaceous material feedstocks, including coal and coal-wastes, to high quality graphene.

According to Universal Matter, graphene is a versatile carbon-based nanomaterial that is 200 times stronger than steel and can stretch up to 25% of its original length.  Graphene consists of tightly bonded carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It is more electrically conductive than copper, possesses extremely high thermal conductivity, and is stronger (tensile strength) than any known material.

Joe Stoffa, NETL’s technology manager for the Carbon Ore Processing Program, said that producing high-quality graphene on a large scale at a low cost could enable several disruptive technologies.

“Universal Matter’s FJH process can convert diverse carbon sources into graphene with tunable characteristics for an almost unlimited number of applications,” Stoffa added. “Universal Matter’s scale-up of FJH graphene production is key because it means the nation’s carbon ore resources can have a significant additional application beyond their traditional use in power generation and metallurgy.”

Graphenea, a U.S./Spain graphene technology firm, reported that “One of the biggest challenges of the graphene industry will be to reach adequate volume production in the next 2-5 years. The focus will have to be on material consistency and production cost.”

According to the Graphene Council, aerospace engineers are looking at graphene and other advanced materials as key enabling technologies for the next generation of aircraft and space vehicles. In the automotive industry, graphene could play a major role in the future of transportation due to its broad range of performance attributes. For example, graphene can improve lithium-ion battery charging speed and capacity, can be added to polymers to decrease automobile weight, and can be incorporated into carbon-metal composites to make smaller and less expensive electric motors and inverters.

Additional applications for graphene include composites, asphalt, anti-corrosion coatings, concrete and cement, electronics, lubricants, plastics, polymers, rubber and synthetics, semiconductors, sensors, structural materials, textiles, thermal management and water filtration.

Universal Matter was formed in 2019 to commercialize technology developed by Rice University. In the same year, NETL began working with Rice University researchers on the development of FJH of coal and coal-derived carbons.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By using its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant, and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.