Future Ready: The Graphene Innovators

McGill's Thomas Szkopek has fostered a research environment at McGill focused on finding the most innovative uses for a wonder material.

What is a million times thinner than a human hair, yet 200 times stronger than steel? What is lighter than paper, yet stretches up to 20% of its length?

When the material graphene, which earned two University of Manchester scientists the Nobel Prize in Physics, exploded onto the research scene in 2004, many thought it was destined to change the world. Bulletproof armour and space elevators, super-antibiotics and rust-proof vehicles were only a few of the imagined applications of graphene, some of which are in development. However, realizing the full impact of the two-dimensional form of carbon carries as much promise as it does challenges.

As people around the globe race to solve the riddle of taking this emerging technology to market, researchers in the lab of McGill Professor Thomas Szkopek had a wave—a sound wave—of inspiration.

Innovation by Example

Szkopek devotes much of his research activity to exploring and exploiting 2D atomic crystals and he is especially curious about graphene. In his Nanoelectronic Devices and Materials lab, he and his students often have impromptu discussions about possible applications for graphene and how they could be developed. “Most of the ideas are bad – but that process is how good ideas get started,” he says. 

Szkopek has always been interested in solving science problems. He looks to his family for the source of his perseverance in the face of challenges. “I inherited a hard work ethic and tolerance for failure. You learn more from your failures than your successes, if you take the time to think about why things failed."

In the lab, he models this determination and inquisitiveness with the goal of fostering innovation—new ideas for problems new or old—and cross-disciplinary solutions. “My job is to allow students to reach their potential and encourage their curiosity. I give students freedom to ask their own questions and pursue their own good ideas. I want to get them out of the mode of being consumers of knowledge and turn them into producers of knowledge.”

He also uses his scientific connections with a diverse network of key players—collaborators from different disciplines, experts in transferring technology from lab to industry, and possible funders—to help students translate and apply new knowledge into practical devices with commercial potential that could benefit society and have a positive impact on people’s daily lives.

Graphene is one million times thinner than a human hair, yet 200 times stronger than steelAs a graduate student at UCLA before arriving at McGill in 2006, Szkopek was encouraged to ask probing physics questions and find practical engineering solutions to difficult problems by his Ph.D. supervisor, electrical engineering professor and physicist Eli Yablonovitch. Szkopek’s mentor introduced a factor that describes light-trapping phenomena, referred to as the “4n2 limit”, which is now used worldwide in almost all commercial solar panels. Yablonovitch was awarded a McGill Honourary Degree in 2018.

“I learned a lot from Eli about trying to reduce problems to their core and asking deep questions about physical limits. I shared an interest in applying physics to technological problems, which is closer to the engineering frontier where things aren’t figured out yet. If you ask good questions, you often find interesting answers. The key is to never lose your curiosity.”

The deep question always at the top of his mind: how to harness the potential of graphene?

A sound idea

During one scientific discussion in the lab, Peter Gaskell, a Ph.D. student who was working with Szkopek on developing lithium-ion batteries made with graphene-treated anodes for electric vehicles, proposed a novel idea about using graphene oxide for an acoustic application: to improve sound quality by using the material in a microphone.

While later sharing a beer with his brother Eric Gaskell, who was doing a Ph.D. in sound engineering at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Peter floated his idea about graphene and graphene oxide’s mechanical properties and potential application in sound amplification.

Eric, who had worked for Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) in California building ribbon microphones for high-performance studio recording and has been a recording engineer at the Aspen Music Festival, was excited and intrigued. He agreed that graphene oxide might be an ideal material for acoustic membranes in ribbon microphones to enhance sound quality. Its high stiffness could potentially produce better sound with less distortion, while the low-density and lightness could lead to greater energy efficiency.

Peter again pitched the idea to Szkopek and his lab mates. “We couldn’t find any obvious holes in the idea, so we thought it should work,” says Szkopek. The Gaskell brothers proceeded to design, develop and build a graphene oxide membrane for ribbon microphones in his lab.

Szkopek’s initial endorsement and support of the idea, along with access to his lab space, specialized equipment, guidance and expertise in graphene, were invaluable: “Thomas’ enthusiasm for the idea allowed us to take it to the next level,” says Eric.

They successfully created a prototype acoustic membrane for ribbon microphones formed from ultra-thin, flat sheets of graphene oxide-based material, which markedly improved sound quality.

Szkopek encouraged them to explore commercializing the invention.

To start them on their way, Szkopek called Derrick Wong, a Technology Transfer Manager in McGill’s Office of Innovation and Partnerships.

“A key trait for researchers who work with our Office is to be very collaborative, like Thomas”, says Wong. “His personality is to encourage his students to explore and lead, and he provides them with guidance and a skill set.”

Impressed, Wong cautioned that the specific application wasn’t likely to attract funding from investors. “The prototype was cool, but the market for high-end microphones is very limited,” he says.

They discussed other possible applications that could expand the market for graphene oxide membrane technology, including loudspeakers for headphones, a $1.6 billion USD market.

GrapheneQ headphone membranes.A pivotal prototype.

Pivotal prototype funding

The Faculty of Engineering saw the potential of this idea and raised money from donors that enabled Szkopek to develop and pursue it with an Innovation Award for $7,000. “That funding was crucial because it allowed us to hire a summer student to work on developing a prototype for headphones. We didn’t need a million dollars, just thousands,” he says.

Electrical engineering undergraduate Raed Abdo helped devise techniques to form the graphene-based material into cone-shaped loudspeaker membranes for headphones, rather than flat acoustic membranes for microphones.

This turned out to be crucial for attracting investors.

Wong had identified TandemLaunch, a Montreal-based business incubator that specializes in creating start-ups from university research and has strong connections in the consumer electronics and audio industries, as an ideal potential early-stage investor.

He called Tandem and said: “You have to see this prototype.” Four people met with the invention team in Szkopek’s lab and sampled the graphene-based headphones. “They listened and went ‘Wow!’”

Eric would carry the invention forward as an entrepreneur-in-residence, who receives business mentorship, guidance and support in building a technology company. Szkopek would be technical advisor and, as a world-leading graphene scientist, build confidence with investors.

Gaskell joined the incubator in 2016, where he assembled a co-founding team for Ora Graphene Audio, which includes business lead Ari Pinkas and materials lead Sergii Tutashkonko. The start-up received seed funding to develop and commercialize the technology, along with valuable mentoring and infrastructure support. To date, Ora has raised $1 million through Kickstarter and is working closely with several of the biggest consumer electronics brands to develop graphene-based loudspeakers for the audio industry and graphene-based micro speakers for laptops, tablets and cell phones.

Pushing biosensing limits

After Ora’s launch, Szkopek turned his sights to another challenge. He and electrical engineering Ph.D. student Ibrahim Fakih began to explore the potential of graphene’s electronic properties to design and develop a large area, graphene-based field effect transistor for high-precision sensing of ions in water.

“I had been wondering,” says Szkopek, “how could you design a graphene transistor to improve performance in sensing things? Is there an advantage to using graphene and how could you realize that advantage?”

“This device improves the minimum pH detection limits by 20 times over current silicon transistor and glass electrode sensors at a much lower cost. Making the transistor physically larger makes it quieter,” explains Szkopek, who worked with Wong to identify a promising application for commercialization.

Fakih, Szkopek and Abdo co-founded UltraSense, a company that aims to improve water quality monitoring with low-cost, graphene-based sensors.

UltraSense won a 2018 McGill Dobson Cup Award for $10,000 and McGill EngInE prize for $5,000. “Water quality is incredibly important, and I’m excited about the local and global possibilities. Imagine a network of sensors continuously feeding data that gives you the levels of contaminants in water and a map in real time,” says Szkopek.

He recently initiated a collaboration with McGill chemical engineering professor Viviane Yargeau, a leading water quality researcher. “We plan to work with her to test how well the technology functions in a real outdoor environment.”

Seeing is believing

The path from curiosity-driven invention to practical, commercial innovation opens the door to dynamic entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for McGill students and graduates who train and do research. Ora inspired more engineering students in Szkopek’s lab to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.

“Ora was an idea and it turned into a new technology company that employs people. That encourages students to go for it. They see that what they do in the lab can turn into something people use in their daily life,” Szkopek says. “This innovation is all being driven by encouraging students’ curiosity, and by providing the resources and environment so they can develop their ideas. The world is changing and there are now more opportunities for students and graduates to build or contribute to their own start-up companies. The future is in their hands.”

Learn more about the innovative company, ora-sound.com 

Thomas Szkopek's research has been supported by the Fonds de Recherche du Quebec - Nature et Technologies (FRQ-NT), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and le Ministère de l'Éducation et de l'Énseignement Supérieur (MEES​​​​​​). 

Portrait credit: Olivier Blouin