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Entrepreneur with R.I. roots dreams of space elevators and lightning harvesters

Sandy Chen, who grew up in North Smithfield and went to Brown, founded Graphene Composites, which uses a material stronger than steel

Sandy Chen, founder and CEO of Graphene CompositesCarol Jarvest

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Sandy Chen, founder and CEO of Graphene Composites.

Question: What is graphene?

Answer: Graphene is carbon. Carbon is the same stuff that’s in pencil leads and diamonds -- it’s just different configurations. If you lay carbon atoms down in a one-atom-thick sheet, almost like a honeycomb design, that is what graphene is. The key thing about graphene is that when you lay them down in a single sheet, the carbon atoms are bound together in probably the strongest way that atoms can be bonded together. You know how hard diamonds are? Graphene is roughly four, five times harder or stronger than a diamond. It’s the strongest material in existence. It’s 100 to 300 times stronger than steel. And because of the arrangement of the carbon atoms, it’s non-polar, which basically means there is no place for electrons to rest. Combine that with the strength and all of a sudden you get a highly conductive, very strong material.

Q: How do you propose to use graphene? I hear your ideas include using it as part of a space elevator, like the one imagined by British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, or a lightning harvester.


A: The original patent that we filed had, as one of the designs, an ultra-strong cable that could be used to create the space elevator because the space elevator needs a cable roughly 50 times stronger than steel. We filed that patent application three or four years ago. And then I was lying awake one stormy night, and I said: Well, one of the problems with the space elevator is that it’s going to be a lightning rod. And then I thought: Oh, wait a second, it’s going to be a lightning rod! In a good way.


Q: So that’s how you came up with the lightning harvester idea?

A: Yes. There was a thunderstorm going on. So I’m thinking about Ben Franklin. I happened to read an article that the average thunderstorm has the equivalent energy of 1/10th of the U.K.’s electricity demand in a year. It’s just that you can’t get it down, right? You see maybe a millionth of that in the form of lighting because lightning has to work really, really hard to get to the ground. It’s got to ionize the air and then form a channel that the electrons can flow into the ground on. But if you’ve got a superconductor wire that’s really strong and you strung it up to the bottom of one of those thunderclouds, it would be like pulling the plug on the bathtub. Electrons would just flow down that wire. Then you would need a super-capacitor array to be able to absorb that much energy that quickly.

Q: This all sounds very space age. Is it possible?

A: I think it’s possible. In terms of the technical requirements of the material, it needs to be a super conductive material that’s very strong. Well, actually we‘ve got that -- graphene. But the hard part is spending the time to actually develop and test the actual designs. So what we are doing is starting with something just 50 meters long and putting it inside of these lightning-strike test facilities to test things against lightning strikes and see if it can handle the voltage of a lighting strike and then channel that energy into this super-capacitor array.


Q: Are there other applications for graphene that you are pursuing?

A: The lightning harvester is probably number four or five on our “to-do list.” The main thing we are focused on now is armor. So we’ve combined graphene -- the world’s strongest substance -- with aerogel, which is the world’s lightest substance and best insulator and one of the best shock absorbers. In a multilayered design, it basically can stop most any bullet that you shoot at it. We have tested it at the Rhode Island State Police firing range. One of the SWAT guys put 17 rounds from an AR-15 into our shield, and it stopped them all. He said no other shield would have done that. Our first main product is for schools. It’s sad but there’s been so many school shootings. We have developed a range of what we call GC shield technology to protect schools against active shooters. You could put them at the doors, entrance ways, behind the classroom doors. We are also developing an aircraft skin. And we talked about a couple of Formula One applications for race cars.


Q: Where is the company based and is this a homecoming for you as a former Rhode Islander?

A: The company started in the United Kingdom four years ago, but we opened our U.S. subsidiary in Providence a year ago. The president of GC USA is “J.R.” Pagliarini. I was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and we moved to Slatersville in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, when I was 10. I went to Phillips Andover and then came back to go to Brown University. I studied international relations and business, and economics. I graduated magna cum laude et cum honoribus. I went up to Boston as a management consultant for a couple of years and then went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to set up and run my own investment advisement consultancy. I got into investment banking and joined Credit Suisse First Boston. I ran their emerging European banks team. Then I went to the U.K. and pretty much did the same thing but covered U.K. banks. I now live an hour south of London. This work is a lot more interesting than being an investment banker, I’ll tell you -- more satisfying, as well.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.