Alain Pénicaud, Research Director at CRPP, is closely involved with Carbon Waters. Co-founder of the company, shareholder, thesis supervisor and advisor, in this interview he looks back on his career and the creation of Carbon Waters, giving us his vision and hopes for the future of the company.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I’m a Research Director at the CNRS, where I began my career in 1988. I’m a pure university product, and proud of it. I’ve been working at the Paul Pascal Research Center (CRPP) in Pessac since 1996.
I was lucky enough to leave as a post-doctoral researcher just when the C60 molecule, also called fullerenen, was discovered. It was a colleague at UC Santa Barbara who introduced it to us, explaining that electrons could be added to make it an anion. I was immediately fascinated: I wanted to be among the first to investigate the subject. That’s why I decided to devote my postdoctoral studies to C60.
Later, I became interested in carbon nanotubes, and then graphene when it was discovered. To sum up, all the “oddities” in the world of carbon chemistry are what fascinate me: C60, carbon nanotubes and finally graphene.
How did you contribute to the creation of Carbon Waters?
Carlos Drummond and I spent several years working on the isolation of graphene using the top-down method of chemical exfoliation. In fact, the Carbon Waters story is the culmination of a long and very fundamental research process.
In the early 2000s, I had the idea that a carbon nanotube salt, i.e. a negatively charged carbon nanotube, could be soluble, unlike a neutral carbon nanotube. Pierre Petit, Director of Research at the Charles Sadron Institute in Strasbourg, had synthesized carbon nanotube salts and sent me some. We tried the experiment, notably with Brigitte Vigolo and Eric Anglaret (from the University of Montpellier), and it worked!
Later, I wanted to try the same thing with graphite. As graphene had only just been discovered, I wanted to be one of the pioneers in research into this new material and, in particular, its production process. With Cristina Vallés, then Amélie Catheline and the support of Carlos, we were the first to produce graphenide solutions!
The system was complex, since we had to work in an inert atmosphere, without oxygen or humidity, in a glove box. Then we had to be able to obtain a stable solution, even in an ambient atmosphere. Thanks to Carlos’ ideas and George Bepete’s tenacity, we succeeded!
And how did you go from research to business?
When we realized the potential of these water-stable graphene dispersions, we knew that this innovation could revolutionize the world of industry. But to do so, we had to take the plunge and create a corporate structure.
Carbon Waters is certainly a story of science, but it’s also a story of people. It was really our meeting with Alban Chesneau that changed everything. Increasingly motivated and convinced by the project, he helped us launch into this entrepreneurial phase and then fully assumed responsibility for the project by creating the Carbon Waters start-up at the end of 2017.
Are you still close to Carbon Waters and its team?
Absolutely. As well as having co-founded the company, I’m still a shareholder, alongside Carlos and Alban. What’s more, following a request to the CNRS ethics department, I’m authorized to devote 20% of my time to Carbon Waters to advise the team on various subjects. For example, I can support Rym on technology and process-related issues, or Thomas on questions concerning the stabilization of graphene in different solvents.
And you are also a thesis supervisor?
Yes, Carlos and I are working with Luna on her CIFRE thesis. Her subject is the stabilization of graphene in water, and in particular the understanding of this phenomenon. A highly interesting and important subject, both for research and for Carbon Waters, but one that requires a lot of time. That’s why it’s so important to have a PhD student fully dedicated to the subject, as the Carbon Waters technical team is already very busy in terms of R&D, production and applications.
What’s your vision of Carbon Waters today?
Today, I’m blown away by what Carbon Waters has become: 17 people in the team, a second round of funding, more and more contacts to carry out studies on industrial applications… At the very beginning of the story, we had no idea that all this would happen!
I’m very happy to be part of this fine company, which has kept its head on its shoulders from the outset, thanks to Alban. This allows us to move forward slowly but surely, which is much healthier for a company. Carbon Waters has developed extraordinary know-how, which has always endured despite the company’s arrivals and departures. Luna, for example, was able to produce graphene water in just two months, thanks to the great expertise of the team!
I’m also proud to see Carbon Waters grow. It’s starting to be well recognized on a global scale too, which helps to highlight French know-how and manufacturing.
How do you see the future for Carbon Waters?
My hope is that Carbon Waters will supply more and more coating and paint manufacturers with “clean” solutions thanks to its graphene-based products. Today, too many chromium-containing additives are used for anticorrosion – a real environmental disaster! We can protect a lot of materials with graphene, but there’s still progress to be made from an ecological point of view.
There are also existing resources for using graphite from the circular economy, which Carbon Waters is already investigating. The company has a vision of a “greener” industrial world, and is taking more and more steps to contribute to it – another aspect of the company that I really appreciate.