Graphene is a carbon nanomaterial with extraordinary properties that give it an astonishing list of applications which continues to increase with every piece of research on the wonder material that was first isolated from graphite in 2004 by professors at the University of Manchester. The unique single layer atomic structure of graphene makes it the thinnest, lightest and strongest material known to man. Today, there is a race on to develop new products with enhanced performance using this recently discovered disruptive material, and Zenyatta Ventures hopes to become a world leader in graphene production through its Albany Graphite Deposit in Ontario, Canada.
Located near the communities of Constance Lake First Nation and Hearst in Northeast Ontario, the Albany deposit has a rare igneous origin, which lead Zenyatta and CEO Francis Dube to believe that it is the only known graphite deposit of its kind in the world.
A unique geological event
“Most graphite deposits are flake or sedimentary style mineralisation, which took millions of years to form through the heating and compression of organic matter,” explains Dube.
“However, the Albany graphite was formed from a fluid in a flash event. This event was likely related to volcanic activity that produced a significant volume of carbon-rich fluids, including carbon dioxide and methane.
It was this unique geological event that took place around a billion years ago that makes the deposit so unique, and is the reason why Albany graphite grains are nearly 1,000 times smaller than conventional flake graphite.
According to research undertaken by Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) last year, it is precisely the smaller grain size of the Albany graphite that determines the superior yield and quality of graphene produced, compared to graphene production from other natural graphite.
This is just one example of a growing body of research on Zenyatta’s graphite and its strong suitability for graphene production. The company has been working with Dr Aicheng Chen from the University of Guelph over the last four years to produce graphene oxide from sample batches of Albany graphite.
“He has had really good success making graphene oxide using our purified graphite product and attributes it to the grain size as well,” says Dube. “Dr Fanchini from Western University in Ontario has also had great success making graphene from Albany graphite,” he adds.
“We are in the process of scaling up our sample batch processing so that we can include both graphene and graphene oxide in our upcoming updated preliminary economic assessment [PEA].”
The company’s initial PEA for the Albany Graphite Deposit was published in 2015 and included an after-tax net present value (NPV) of US$590 million at an 8% discount rate selling graphite in the high-purity market at an average price of US$7,500.
This study also included a mineral resource estimate based on a potential combined open pit and underground mining scenario. The deposit which is hosted within two well-defined breccia pipes, was estimated to contain 968,000 tonnes of graphitic carbon in the indicated category and 445,000 tonnes in the inferred category.
Therefore, the abundance and high-quality nature of the deposit gives the Albany project ‘enormous potential’ in the eyes of Dube. However, it is the style of mineralisation at the deposit that is generating the most excitement rather than the scale of mineralisation, as proven by Tokyo Tech’s recent comparative research.
Even when other natural graphite was milled down to a similar size to the Albany graphite, it didn’t perform as well, with problems such as agglomeration emerging from the testing. This research goes a long way to supporting Zenyatta’s claim that its graphite is the best in the world for processing into graphene.
Research on graphene applications
As of last year, there were over 25,000 graphene patent applications across myriad industries, from energy storage to electronics, composites, infrastructure, aerospace, biomedical and more.
In total, Zenyatta is currently working with eight Canadian universities on multiple research projects for graphene applications, and this academic inquiry has been heavily supported by the Canadian government.
“The Government of Canada, through the National Research Council, has identified graphene as a key nanomaterial for the future of Canada. As a result, they have poured significant funding to help us conduct this research through the universities.
“We are very happy that the government has the foresight of knowing the value that graphene can bring to our economy down the road,” says Dube.
Zenyatta also recently attended the Global Graphene Expo in Austin, Texas and Dube came away from the exhibition amazed by the many novel potential uses of graphene. For instance, Ford Motors will introduce two 2019 models that have incorporated graphene as a sound barrier to reduce noise.
“Based on what I saw at the Expo, the amount of innovation that is taking place using graphene material and the fact that companies like Ford are moving forward with products are great signs for industry growth.
“We also recently announced a new research partnership with DLR – the German Aerospace Centre. They are looking at multiple applications in the graphene market.
“Now you are starting to witness multinationals and highly capitalised companies realising the potential applications of graphene and starting to put money into this research. It’s just a question of time from our perspective, before some of these applications begin to take hold across global markets.”
A new name for a new direction
The company is now better placed to capitalise on these commercial opportunities in the graphene market after a new business-focused board was elected in May 2018. These boardroom changes will be reflected in an imminent company name change to ZEN Graphene Solutions.
“We have a new direction and our new name reflects where we want to go,” declares Dube.
Zenyatta will soon start an environmental baseline study for its Albany Graphite Deposit, a mandatory part of any mining project in Canada. This environmental assessment will pave the way towards the commencing of mining operations, making now a very exciting time for all involved at Zenyatta.
At the start of next year, the company will also begin a significant bulk sample programme that will collect up to 990 tonnes of mineralised material from the property. These high-quality graphite samples will then be prepared for processing into graphene material.
“We’ve got a very large resource. We could supply 25,000 tonnes of graphene for the next 30 years or more.
“But, as a leading graphene solutions company, it’s not just about the quality of our resource. We are also focusing on graphene applications and strengthening the intellectual property that we are co-developing with our university collaborators and end user partners.”