The Global Reach of XG's Tiny Stuff


The old warehouses and industrial buildings at the corner of Mt. Hope and Washington in Lansing look like something out of the dark, shadowy world of Harry Potter.

But in the middle of the complex, behind the door with the small XG Sciences sign, important things are lurking.

“There’s lots of stuff going on in the nooks and crannies,” says Mike Knox, president and CEO of the high-tech firm.

XG makes what’s called nanoplatelets, which are infinitesimally small stacks of graphene sheets. The material is tiny in size but big in impact.

The key is that it's derived from graphite—it  has the dark form of something you’d see shaved off of your pencil. That means it has durability, strength (200 times that of steel, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), stiffness and electrical conductivity.

And it can be used in untold number of products and materials, from fuel tanks to sporting goods, batteries to the shampoo-sized bottle sitting on a conference table at the firm’s East Lansing offices.

It also puts the Capital region and Michigan State University (MSU) in the middle of a hot new product development scene that seems to have unlimited potential.

“We’ve got a chance to build something. This is leading-edge science,” Knox says. “And
I hope we’re going to have some fun while doing it.”

Home Grown Global

Knox knows of only two smaller competitors that have emerged nationwide in the graphene market. He figures XG Sciences is “one of a relative handful” of Capital region firms dealing in such an exclusive, high-tech field.

That means while the region is hardly ready to rival Ann Arbor for tech business, XG could provide an important example for other start-ups in the area.

XG’s process for developing the material was honed by MSU scientists. Many universities are researching how to make graphene and what to use it for once it's made. MSU researchers, who still work closely with the company, came up with a unique and relatively low-cost and high-performance way of making the material, Knox says. He bought the licensing rights in 2006.

XG, which has three employees, completed its 6,000-square-foot lab a year ago. But Knox is already raising money for a much larger facility that he hopes to have running within a year at an undetermined location.

That’s a result of the big business XG is doing with more than 120 customers, including industry giants like BASF, Dupont and “all the top automakers,” which Knox declined to list by name. He says the Department of Defense is interested, as is Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The companies use the material for any number of needs, depending on their business.

In a typical week, Knox says, he might talk to researchers from China, Germany and Denmark about uses for the nanoparticles.

”Our customers are developing applications to use tons of this material,” Knox says.

For now, XG processes the graphene in 10-20 pound quantities at a time at its lab and sells the material in orders ranging from a half-pound to 75 pounds or more. Knox envisions one day being able to put a price of $20 a pound on the graphene.

Startup No. 6

Knox calls all this “an incredibly hot area” of technology. Though graphene has been a big topic in scientific media circles, XG’s product is marketed mainly through word of mouth and through MSU’s contacts.

“You don’t market it by standing on a street corner saying, ‘Come in and see our (product),’ ” he says.

Knox seems ideally suited for the vagaries of the private marketplace. Born and raised in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Knox has a master’s degree in business from the University of Minnesota and has been an entrepreneur for decades. This is his sixth start-up company, all in the manufacturing and service industry.

He and wife, Linn Van Dyne, a professor at MSU’s Eli Broad Graduate School of Management, moved here in 1993 when she came to MSU.

Knox has since been CEO of East Lansing’s Polyphasic Inc., a software company also spun off from the university, and five years ago sold his TravWell Inc., a software-related business that specialized in travel services. TravWell upgraded Capital Regional International Airport’s website into the interactive www.FlyLansing.com.

He heard about MSU’s graphene research through his contacts among the university’s scientists.

Processes and Uses

Scott Murray, former manufacturing director at Lansing’s Motor Wheel Corp., became XG’s first real employee in 2007. He currently serves as vice president of operations, overseeing the XG lab.

In the lab, a closely guarded process takes place in which graphite—sold on the open market—is mixed with strong industrial chemicals to come up with graphene.

The low-tech finishing touch involves placing the material in a standard microwave oven in order to separate the individual sheets of graphene. The result leaves a microwave mess that looks like an explosion of dark coffee. A one-gallon jar of graphene flakes equals about a pound.

The process itself isn’t what excites Knox, though. It’s all the uses or, as he says, the “gazillion applications.”

Graphene nanoplatelets are used in golf clubs, tennis rackets, and biomedical products. A lot of those are what Knox calls “low-lying,” the most obvious applications.

XG is aiming bigger.

The product has big potential for the auto industry because it can be added to sheet molding to make it stronger and tougher. And because it’s so light, it can lead to better fuel efficiency.

Graphene can be useful in coatings and in protecting electrical parts while still permitting them to work properly and not conflict with each other. It can eliminate some of the chemical processes used to shield products and has a number of uses for airplanes and batteries, Knox says.

Boeing, for instance, is sponsoring research at MSU in which the material could protect planes against lightning strikes, he says.

“Most of the challenge is moving from the lab beaker to the real world,” Knox says.

For his part, Murray’s goal is to not only catch up to the backlog of orders but also to produce the material in as small a form as possible. Right now, it might come out as 6-15 nanometers (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) and may equal 10-20 layers of molecules. The ultimate is one molecule thick.

Once that’s achieved, though, there’s the job of constantly working on imperfections in the product.

“We’ve set some pretty high standards for ourselves,” Murray says.

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John Foren is a recovering newspaper editor who is enjoying writing again.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Mike Knox, graphene nanplatelets bursting into flame in a microwave oven, research equipment, and jugs of product ready to ship

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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