Carbon Research and Development Co. President and CEO Steve Hooper, center, with employees Aaron Cox (left) and Tiffany Ford (right). Courtesy of Carbon Research and Development Co

What do plastic bags, grass, wood and spoiled leftovers have in common? 

The owner of a Wise County business said that he’s found a cheap, carbon-neutral way to turn all of those carbon-based materials into graphene — a recently-discovered substance that researchers say could revolutionize a wide array of technologies, from batteries and smartphones to water filtration systems.

“We’ve developed a way of making graphene that is a totally green and renewable process,” said Steve Hooper, president and CEO of the Carbon Research and Development Co. “Our cost [for] producing graphene is pennies on the dollar compared to [the processes used by] anybody else in the world…. We are ready to go commercial with it.”

The Carbon Research and Development Co. opened its Graphene Research Center in the town of Wise about three years ago with the help of a $1.5 million loan from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA). It now employs roughly a dozen people. 

If and when the company starts working with other businesses to experiment with graphene in their products — something Hooper said he expects to happen soon –15 to 20 more jobs could follow. Jonathan Belcher, VCEDA’s executive director and general counsel, said he feels “very optimistic” about the research center’s future.

“Within a year or two, this should really take off in a big way. That’s kind of [the company’s] timeline on it,” Belcher said. 

“Clearly, graphene is something that’s a developing market,” he added. “But given the remarkable properties and characteristics of graphene, it seems like a no-brainer…that it’s going to be huge as the years go on and that market becomes more fully developed.”

Graphene is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice made up of carbon atoms. Courtesy of AlexanderAIUS.

An out-of-reach “wonder material”

Discovered by a pair of University of Manchester researchers in the early 2000s, graphene — the base unit of graphite — consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb formation. At just one atom thick, it’s the first two-dimensional solid ever discovered and one of the world’s thinnest known substances.

The stuff quickly developed a reputation as a “wonder material” with sci-fi-worthy properties: It’s two hundred times stronger than an equivalent amount of steel, for example. Harder than diamonds. Lighter than paper. Stretchier than rubber. Far more conductive than copper. And almost completely impermeable to gas and liquid. 

According to the University of Manchester, those qualities suggest a dizzying array of applications for graphene, from reducing the side effects of cancer treatment to making longer-lasting lithium batteries, stronger paints and flexible touch screens. 

“It was much touted, much talked about in the marketplace,” Hooper said. “But you never saw graphene in anything much, because it was so expensive.”

Meaning expensive to produce. Andre Geim, the physics professor who discovered graphene, manually isolated it with a humble piece of sticky tape. Researchers have since figured out more efficient methods — growing it on copper foil, for example, and producing it through a chemical separation process. But Hooper said that those techniques are still prohibitively costly, and the latter method requires mining graphite.

“Graphene just made from graphite has got a tremendous impact on the environment,” he said. “Because it’s mined in third-world countries always, not in the United States. They do a very sloppy job in mining. [There’s] a lot of pollution in the making of graphene from graphite.”

The Graphene Research Center in Wise County. Courtesy of Graphene Research and Development Co.

From mines to renewables

Hooper, 73, is himself a former mining tycoon. A Nashville-born engineer who now lives in Kingsport, he used to own and manage multiple coal mines; his company profile says he was once operating 22 coal mines and loading facilities at the same time. 

But Hooper said that in the 1980s — when he saw the coal industry declining — he started selling some of those operations. By the mid-2000s, he said, he’d begun looking for newer, greener energy options.

He landed on graphene production through a string of other inventions. First, using biomass — organic material such as wood, manure, crops and food waste — Hooper created a fuel that could be added to coal to reduce the pollution released from burning it. But he said the coal market “got so horrific” that that product wasn’t economically viable. 

Next came a wood-based form of carbon that could trap the mercury in coal smoke, preventing its release into the air by turning it into a storable solid. In 2017, less than two years after Hooper had begun building a plant in Arkansas to make that technology, he said, the federal government loosened mercury standards for coal-fired power plants.

“So there we were with…mercury capture [technology] that we couldn’t sell in that bulk,” Hooper said with a chuckle.

He shifted the plant’s focus to producing a carbon powder made from biomass. It offered a green alternative to carbon black, a petroleum-baesd material used in car tires, rubbers, paints and plastics, but the structure of the carbon Hooper was using wasn’t strong enough. 

“I had been reading about graphene since it was uncovered there in England,” Hooper said. “I said, ‘Well, you know, guys, I think we can make graphene as another step in what we’re currently doing.’ So we began to work on that.”

Hooper said that part of what led him to bring that work to Southwest Virginia was the area’s own history with coal.

“Because, probably, of my coal background, I love Wise County, I love the people of Wise County. They’re my kind of folk, you know,” he said. “I would normally be in a technical park in North Carolina or in Atlanta or something like that…. People thought we were crazy for going to Wise, but it’s comfortable to me.” 

“It definitely is a great talking point of the area,” Belcher said of the graphene center. “To be able to talk about and show that this kind of skill set and workforce is attainable in the coalfield region is just a great story to be able to tell and to show what’s possible here.”

Tiffany Ford at work in the Graphene Research Center. Courtesy of Graphene Research and Development Co.

“Pennies on the dollar”

By the time Wise County began courting the Carbon Research and Development Co., the company — one of 32 that Hooper owns — had already found a rudimentary way to turn any carbon-based material into graphene. Hooper said the company set up shop in the 25,000-square-foot research facility in Wise to refine that process. (The facility also tests rubber for strength and durability, he said, since so much of the carbon his companies produce is used in the tire industry.)

After three years of experimenting, and some delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve now reached the finish line with their method — whatever it is. Citing trade secrets, Hooper wouldn’t say a word about the actual process or even its cost.

Inside the Graphene Research Center. Courtesy of Graphene Research and Development Co.

But he said that the price of his company’s new graphene technique is “very, very low” compared to that of the competition. He added that the process is carbon-neutral, meaning it doesn’t release any carbon into the atmosphere.

“We have really gotten it down so that we are ready to go commercial with it,” Hooper said. 

Asked whether the company had made any deals yet, he said that they have “four major companies that are very interested in what we’re doing, to the point of being ready to do something soon,” and that they’re “on the eve of probably…announcing something” on that front.

How long is this particular eve? 

Hooper laughed.

“Depends on whatever I’m talking about, right?” he said. “I wish I knew that. I’d go play the futures and I’d put more money in Bitcoin.”

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast...