WISE — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine was on a local visit last week when he learned about some truly astonishing research.
Kaine made a stop in Wise Thursday evening to visit the Graphene Research Center at the Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park.
Graphene is a carbon-based, two-dimensional substance that, when viewed under an electron microscope, is hexagon-shaped and is one atom thick.
“That means you need a million sheets to make it the thickness of Saran Wrap,” said Dr. Steve Hooper, chief executive of Carbon Research and Development Co., which is working at the Graphene Research Center.
According to Hooper, graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, harder than a diamond and more flexible than rubber. It is also a superconductor and conducts heat and electricity better than gold.
Graphene can be produced from any carbon-based material but is most often made from graphite. By contrast, Hooper’s research uses coal and wood for production of graphene.
In March, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority approved a loan of up to $1.5 million to help the company launch research and production at the Wise facility.
Interested in the economic benefits that the production of graphene could have in the region, Kaine suggested contacting the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to see what applications they may have for the substance. Kaine also mentioned that shipyards in the coastal region of the state and other manufacturers could benefit from the product.
While Hooper was reluctant to talk about the specifics, he stated that graphene is a byproduct of something that his company already does. That means that he can sell the substance for a lower price than other companies that create the graphene itself. Graphene sells for $4,500 per pound. “We can beat that by a lot,” said Hooper.
Kaine was also interested in the company collaborating with universities. Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy explained that the University of New Mexico, University of Mississippi and Virginia Tech are in talks about working with the company on various graphene-related projects. “Virginia Tech has been working with NASA-Langley on graphene sensors. That’s going to be huge.”
Kennedy stated that he was amazed at how far ahead Europe is in the production of graphene. “From what I’ve seen with the graphene market, it’s so huge, and so wide, the biggest problem as a business person is making the right points of entry to build cash flow to continue to expand,” said Kennedy.
Kaine asked if Europe and China are investing money into figuring out how to produce graphene at a low cost. “If they aren’t yet producing at a low cost, this is your strategic edge if you can make it happen,” said Kaine.