May 1, 2018

$10K Clean Energy Prize awarded to Team GOLeafe for graphene innovation

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Imagine solar panels that can generate energy 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather. Picture an energy storage solution that outcompetes lithium ion batteries in cost, storage capacity, charging speed, weight, lifespan, and safety. 

You may be seeing the future of the promising nanomaterial graphene—and Fuqua School of Business student Arsheen Allam is out to make it a reality with GOLeafe. The small startup has a patent pending for a new graphene production process and will soon pilot groundbreaking energy generation and storage applications. 

And now the Duke University Energy Initiative—the university's interdisciplinary hub for all things energy-related—has awarded Allam and the GOLeafe team its Clean Energy Prize of $10,000. 

The Clean Energy Prize is offered as part of the Duke Startup Challenge, an annual competition organized by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative to spark students' entrepreneurial endeavors. GOLeafe is currently one of the top 10 finalists in the Duke Startup Challenge and was also a finalist for the Hult Prize at Duke this year.

Allam is joined on the team by student Towqir Aziz, who's pursuing a master's degree in bioethics and science policy (a degree program administered by the Duke Initiative for Science & Society via the Duke Graduate School), and renowned chemist Dr. Sarkar of the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology.

A more affordable way to source graphene

One million times thinner than paper. One thousand times more conductive than copper. Two hundred times stronger than structural steel. Potential applications ranging from energy generation to tissue engineering. It's easy to see why scientists are calling graphene the "wonder material" of our time. 

It's also one of the world's most expensive materials to produce, however. Companies across the globe have spent tens of billions on graphene for research and development since its discovery in 2004, but the material's production costs prohibit widespread commercial use.  

Typically, scientists develop graphene through mechanical exfoliation (strong, power-intensive shaking of coal) or chemical exfoliation (using sulfuric/nitric acid on a carbon-dense material, usually coal). These processes yield little usable graphene—usually 10-20%. 

Allam, who graduated in December with an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business, has developed a proprietary production process to extract graphene from natural substances like grass, hay, tree barks, and coconut shells (Patent Pending, # 15278232). 

"At GOLeafe, we have put ourselves at the forefront of the graphene industry by producing it using solely organic input materials in place of harsh chemicals and energy intensive equipment," explained Allam, who also holds a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering from North Carolina State University and a master's degree in global innovation management from Institut d'Administration des Entreprises (IAE), France. 

Their graphene is already available commercially through GOLeafe's partnership with Kyma Technologies

But the GOLeafe team isn't stopping there. 

Developing graphene-based applications

In addition to selling raw graphene, the GOLeafe team is developing applications for energy generation and energy storage. 

Graphene holds the record for best thermal conductivity of any current material in the world, is the most impermeable material ever discovered—making it a promising candidate to replace silicon in the solar energy industry. 

Graphene also has the capacity to absorb light from across the spectrum. "We believe that panels built with the various graphene derivatives we produce will be able to generate electricity 24 hours a day," notes Allam. "And since they need not be directly under the sun, they can be stacked, significantly reducing the real estate requirement, compared to traditional silicon-based solar panels."  

GOLeafe has attracted a partner in Indiaan entrepreneur who is eager to invest in the piloting and larger-scale production of graphene-based energy panels. This summer, they'll work to build and pilot functional prototypes of increasingly larger generation capacity. 

Meanwhile, the GOLeafe team is developing a graphene-based energy storage solution with the potential to outperform lithium-ion and lead-acid battery technologies, with regard to factors like cost, storage capacity, charging speed, discharge time, weight, lifespan, and safety.

"Graphene has significantly greater surface area, due to its nanoparticle size," explains Allam. "That means it has higher storage density, which is the amount of energy stored per unit mass." While lithium-ion batteries operate through ion exchange, the graphene-based supercapacitor operates through electron exchange, so it can hold a charge for longer than lithium ion batteries and does not run the risk of combustion. And graphene is very lightweight, so GOLeafe's supercapacitors weigh significantly less than other energy storage devices today.

The Clean Energy Prize will aid the GOLeafe team in developing a prototype of the supercapacitor and leasing a potentiostat that will allow them to quickly discharge and recharge the prototype as they fine-tune and test it. 

The Duke Difference
GOLeafe isn't Allam's first startup—previously she founded the startup CNanoz, which produces nanotechnology-based carbon water filters. "From there, I developed an interest in graphene for water desalination and clean energy applications, with the ultimate goal of giving back to underserved communities and improving their quality of life," she explained.

Allam pointed out that, while her previous training in materials science and engineering has been pivotal, her time at Duke has greatly contributed to how she's approached GOLeafe. "Dr. Jeremy Petranka's strategy class, as well as his endless guidance and support outside the classroom, has helped sharpen several pitches and the direction of the business," she noted.

Allam has been invited to present her graphene work at national speaking engagements, such as the annual Research, Innovation & Science for Engineered Fabrics (RISE) conference. GOLeafe has also been featured in InnovationFWD, a novel tech-enabled platform with the objective to provide quality insight into the most impactful early-stage innovation around the country.

She noted, "We're so grateful for the Clean Energy Prize, as well as the Energy Initiative's interdisciplinary events and programming, which draws in students and faculty from across Duke. Duke's sizable energy community has been a great asset."

Energy Initiative director Brian Murray remarked, "We enthusiastically support Arsheen's continued exploration of graphene's unique potential to transform the energy industry. We look forward to following GOLeafe's progress."