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Stronger than Steel, Thinner than Paper, Can Graphene Help Build a New Economy in SWVA?

In Wise County, where coal has been king, its sleeker cousin recently came to town sporting a whole new look.

Graphene, the recently discovered relative of carbon, thinner than paper and stronger than steel, it’s being called a miracle substance that could revolutionize the future of technology. And  southwestern Virginia is looking to become the graphene hub of the country.


Wise County has been building lots of high-tech office space with the notion that, OK say it with me,  if you build it, they will come. Apparently, that mantra works.

“A little over a year ago, The “Carbon Research and     Development Center relocated to Wise County, Virginia” and set up shop in a 24,000 square foot facility in two laboratories there.”

Jack Kennedy is an attorney in Wise who had been researching a new ‘miracle’ substance called graphene. “And what we're hoping to forge, is the first commercial laboratory for graphene in the United States.”

Graphene comes from graphite, the same substance you find in a pencil. But that’s where the similarity ends. Discovered in England in 2004, this new allotrope – let’s call it a derivative of Carbon, is the new ‘super material.’ Its properties barely distinguishable from magic, it can exist in many forms, a material that can be impervious for some applications and impermeable for others and is said to be the best heat and electricity conductor ever discovered. Its applications appear endless.

“For example, if we can incorporate it into a paint,” says Kennedy, “and paint a ship, barnacles may not attach. If we can incorporate it and work with the aviation industry on the leading edge of a wing of an aircraft, ice will not form. Kennedy sees this achieving this would be “revolutionary and worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run.” 

And it is the long run that this partnership between the Carbon Research Center Development Company and the and Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Old Dominion University is aiming for. Jerry Cronin has been instrumental in the project. He runs a program that helps create new, scalable, entrepreneurial businesses in places in Virginia, that lack them. Cronin says the idea is “If you, build the ecosystem in those places, you not only generate business and new opportunities, but also you create the opportunity for folks to stay where they grew up and where they love.  So instead of having to move out to get a high tech or exciting job someplace, you've got great stuff going on where you live.”

Currently, China holds more than half the patents on graphene in the world, but the biggest demand for the sought after substance is coming from the U.S., followed by every other technological country and that’s because it just might have properties that could –well, save the world, solving the problem of energy storage.

Cronin points out that the biggest challenge for the energy sector is “not so much an energy creation problem, but an energy storage problem that's prevalent throughout the world. The use of graphene to improve the performance of batteries and long-term mandatory storage could be a real game changer because now you're enabling other modalities that can boost power. You're creating a place that can actually store the power until you're ready to use it. And that's, that's been missing in a lot of places. 

What’s not missing is the raw materials to create graphene. It can be made from “anything that has been alive in our carbon world, any grass, anything that has the ability to be super-heated,” and graphene is extracted from those materials.

Jack Kennedy says the plan is to use wood – a renewable resource, abundant in Virginia. “We are excited about the potential. We think it's going to be an industry that will take root in many places across the country as industries begin to adopt it based upon a lower production price.

Right now, there’s just a handful of employees at the CRCD. The plan is for 35 but demand for graphene growing. “On the London exchange, we're beginning to see consumer applications.” Says Cronin. “Ford motor company is beginning to incorporate, graphene into some of the interior moldings and the firewall between the passenger compartment, and the engine. They’re using graphene to protect the passenger compartment from temperature changes, as well as sound and light.” There is also speculation that Samsung is preparing to introduce a graphene battery for the Samsung Note 10.”

These developments give “Wise an unusual opportunity” says Kennedy. “We are, situated in the central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, often forgotten about and frequently underestimated.” But he points out that the “intellectual capacity to be creative and innovation can come from the strangest of places--- and frequently does. Kennedy and Cronin say companies are clamoring for this new state of the art substance. Some call it the new plastic, but without the carbon footprint.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.