Two physics professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have discovered a new material with properties that could disrupt the battery market and lead to a new generation of computer technology.
Using a transmission electron microscope, Carol Hirschmugl and Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska discovered graphene monoxide, which is a 2D material and the first solid form of carbon monoxide that exists at room temperature and pressure.
The two physicists first made the discovery in 2011 via in-situ monitoring, often called the “look and cook” method, Hirschmugl said. This process allows physicists to actually watch atomic structures as they take shape.
At first sight, their new material was one millionth the size of the diameter of a hair. It signaled that what they had discovered was unique, but not enough to actually use, Hirschmugl said.
With a discovery on their hands, Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska had to make a choice: find satisfaction in their discovery and move on or realize its potential through research and product development.
Choosing the latter, the two professors co-founded SafeLi LLC, a startup incubated at UWM that produces lithium-ion battery parts. With its patented material, SafeLi can boost the storage capacity of li-ion batteries that exceeds current graphite-based li-ion batteries on the market.
“We made that choice because we thought it has potential,” Hirschmugl said. “We didn’t want it to be lost.”
When Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska started SafeLi in 2016, they understood that graphene monoxide has similar conducting properties to silicon and structural properties to graphene, a wonder metal known for its flexibility, and a better conductor of electricity than copper.
It’s possible, Hirschmugl said, that graphene monoxide could be paired with graphene to build carbon-based microprocessors, a new generation of computer technology that researchers believe could be faster and more energy efficient.
These microprocessors and their transistors – tiny electronic switches that perform computations – are made from carbon nanotubes rather than their silicon-based predecessor.
“Graphene is potentially the future of computers and with that being the case, our material would be really critical,” Hirschmugl said.
Considering graphene monoxide’s potential, SafeLi has spent the past several years researching various markets where their material could be used. Last year, the Shorewood-based startup received a $1 million federal grant to further commercialize their product.
The grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Small Business Technology Transfer program, follows SafeLi’s completion of a phase one technical and commercial proof-of-concept grant award.
The phase two grant supports the scaled-up production of graphene monoxide to allow for the development of a battery prototype for electric vehicles. It will also allow SafeLi to grow to 10 employees and begin pursuing angel, venture or corporate capital funding.
SafeLi was incubated at the Milwaukee I-Corps program, a partnership of five area universities that allows academic participants to explore commercializing their research ideas. Milwaukee I-Corps is administered by UWM and funded by the National Science Foundation.
Through the program, Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska were mentored by Loren Peterson, an entrepreneur in UWM’s Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. They were also accepted into the national I-Corps program.
As a UWM- incubated startup, SafeLi has access to a variety of resources, including the engineering department’s battery lab. It allows SafeLi to more accurately test and develop its products, which could accelerate the time it takes to reach commercialization, Hirschmugl said.
“It’s really important to have that turnaround of making a material and then testing it,” Hirschmugl said. “You get this quick feedback loop because you have the ability to make the material and test it all on one campus.”
While Hirschmugl and Gajdardziska-Josifovska may be on the path to commercialization, it could take years before graphene monoxide is fully commercialized.
Graphene was discovered in 2004 and, in 2010, the two University of Manchester professors who made the discovery were awarded a Nobel Prize. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that graphene was commercialized and used in certain products like golf balls, concrete and shoes.
Similar to graphene, scaling up production of graphene monoxide is difficult and will require baby steps, Hirschmugl said. However, graphene monoxide may have an accelerated route to market because of the path that graphene paved.
“Part of our trajectory is, because graphene has come such a long way, that may make it possible for us to get on that bandwagon and accelerate our path to commercialization,” Hirschmugl said.
Innovation: Lithium-ion battery parts made from graphene monoxide
Founders: Carol Hirschmugl and Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska