In 2009, a couple of Russian scientists decided to start a small business out of the spare bedroom of their Long Island home. With the gumption of a gym teacher in an Ural village who turns out an Olympic dream team, Daniel Stolyarov and wife Elena Polyakova launched Graphene Laboratories, one of the world's first graphene production facilities.
There's something quintessentially Russian about graphene. First isolated in 2004 when a pair of Russian researchers used a piece of scotch tape to pull a single atomic layer off of a hunk of graphite — a feat legions of molecular scientists had failed to achieve in 50 years of research using the highest level microanalysis equipment — graphene is a supermaterial: the thinnest material ever obtained, the lightest known to man, harder than diamond, stronger than steel, superconductive, transparent, bendable. You might say graphene is the consummate 21st century building material.
Daniel Stolyarov would say so. As the sole manufacturer of graphene-enhanced 3D printing materials, he is at the forefront of what is shaping up to be a revolution in the 3D printing industry.
"So far, 3D printing has been utilized only for making mechanical components, which I believe is a serious limitation," says Stolyarov with heavily-accented precision at a Tech Day New York expo where the average attendee is too jacked up on free candy and ginchy new apps to bother with a staple item like 3D printer filament. "It can be used for making functional devices. But to make a functional device, you need to combine a variety of materials: conductive materials, insulating materials and thermally-conductive materials in one piece and put them all together in the same 3D printing process. There's no need for assembly work if a 3D printer is used this way."
The bottom line is that a length of graphene filament can turn a 3D printer into a home electronics manufacturing unit capable of cranking out anything from a robot to a cell phone, no assembly required.
Based in the unassuming hamlet of Calverton, N.Y., 3D Graphene Lab Inc. consists of an e-commerce business, a manufacturing facility and an R&D lab where Stolyarov and company successfully ran out the first 3D-printed battery last year.
"Graphene, when mixed with a polymer, makes a conductive network within the polymer, and then the polymer becomes conductive. Then, you're only one step away from making a battery," explains Stolyarov. "Our conductive filament was the basis for making a battery, then we came up with materials for (an) anode cassette and separator and (3D printed) it in one piece ... The beauty of that is that we didn't use a fancy specialized 3D printer, we used an inexpensive, consumer-based 3D printer. It's all in the materials."
"There are certain benefits a 3D-printed battery can offer," says Stolyarov, in the manner of one accustomed to gross understatement. "It can be made in any shape and can be part of a machine or device." It can also charge 10 times faster than a lithium-ion battery and take up a fraction of the space of a conventional AA.
The countless potential applications for super-strong, super-conductive, feather-light graphene polymers are not lost on the world's industrial captains and Graphene 3D Lab's clients include NASA, Ford Motor Co., GE, Apple, Xerox, Samsung, IBM, LG, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford and other tech sector A-listers.
"We started out making (graphene) and offering it to researchers," says Stolyarov. "Since then, our dream (has become) to offer it to ordinary people so that they can explore this material and benefit from it."
Graphene currently costs about $150 a pound ($70 a kilogram), a price Stolyarov considers prohibitive and is actively working to reduce to a level that will make graphene filament feasible for printing appliances and furniture.
"3D printing has tremendous potential," he says almost unconvincingly from his spot behind a display table littered with the kinds of plastic doodads commercial 3D printers are commonly used to churn out today, while his research and development team in Calverton prints batteries, light bulbs and materials that don't exist in nature, but will likely end up as high-performance running shoes on the feet of 21st century Olympians.