Ora makes striking music with graphene
Futuristic carbon material has ideal attributes for speaker tech Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – May 20, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 6:10am
Graphene, the strongest and most highly conductive material known to man, happens to make really good speakers. Canadian start-up Ora Graphene Audio Inc. is taking advantage of the unique attributes offered by this miracle material in the world's first graphene headphones.
Based in Montreal, Quebec, Ora originated from a conversation between co-founder Dr. Robert-Eric Gaskell and his brother, Dr. Peter Gaskell.
"The idea to apply graphene to loudspeakers came from an interaction between myself and my brother," Robert recalled. "At the time he was working on graphene for battery anodes and mentioned the different mechanical characteristics that it had. It struck me that these mechanical characteristics would be ideally suited for microphones and loudspeakers."
Thus, the Gaskell brothers began research into how the properties of graphene oxide could be tuned to create the ideal conditions for professional, high-quality sound.
Shortly after producing the first prototype of an audio transducer based on graphene oxide technology, Robert joined TandemLaunch as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
It was at TandemLaunch where he assembled a founding team around his idea of exploring the use of futuristic graphene to achieve new possibilities in sound quality. After an investment of a little over US$500,000 to build Ora, the team started on their path to bring professional quality audio to every device.
Before they could achieve that goal, however, they had to face a challenge that had yet to be overcome by anyone, affordably manufacturing speaker-grade graphene oxide membranes at scale.
Since the discovery of the method of extracting it from graphite in 2004, graphene has captured the imagination of scientists and inventors alike. Revolutions in sensing, energy storage and harvesting are just a few of the multitude of promises that have put graphene at "wonder material" status.
Time and time again, however, these promises have been crippled by the merciless realities of manufacturing.
If Ora was going to succeed where other commercial graphene endeavors had struggled, they would have to put manufacturability at the forefront.
Therefore, southward, across the border to Northwestern University the team at Ora sought a solution from where they knew best, academia. There they were introduced to the research of Professor SonBinh Nguyen.
It was in the investigations into the surface chemistry of graphene nanocomposites that Nguyen had identified a way to manufacture graphene in sheets with a simple process that could be easily scaled to an industrial setting.
With this approach, Ora found the solution to its manufacturing challenge and was now free to focus on tuning GrapheneQ into the ideal material for professional-quality audio for the mass consumer market.
Ideal material, impeccable sound
Sound is the generalized name given to acoustic waves with frequencies, the width and height of the wave.
The sound emanating from speakers ranging from ear buds to concert stacks are the mechanical vibrations produced by an audio sound transducer that generates these acoustic waves.
Audio sound transducers include both input sensors, that convert sound into an electrical signal such as a microphone, and output actuators that convert the electrical signals back into sound such as a loudspeaker.
Audio that is clear of distortion across the entire band of human hearing – from roughly 20 to 20,000 hertz – demands that transducer material be unrelentingly stiff.
However, to simultaneously be efficient enough to produce loud volumes in even the smallest forms, it also needs to be exceedingly light.
Before Ora's discovery of GrapheneQ, these conditions could only be achieved by exotic and expensive materials such as beryllium and diamond.
The membrane of a loudspeaker is another primary part of any sound you hear – headphones, cellphones, laptop speakers all have varying sizes of conically shaped designs to emit sound.
The materials used for speaker cones also vary, from paper, plastic, fibers, and metals to name a few. While all of these have pros and cons, the ideal cone material does not flex, which ensures the purest replica possible of the signal from the amplifier is produced by the speaker.
Ideally this material is lightweight and well damped, which stops speaker vibration when a signal has stopped, creating "tighter" bass. Until now, no material has been found with the perfect balance of strength and weight, until graphene.
With an extremely high graphene content that tops 97%, the Ora GQ headphones have been touted by audiophiles as delivering the precise, crisp sound typically only achieved by the highest end headphones or a live performance.
"Ora's GQ headphones turned out beautifully. I can hear every musical detail with a level of clarity I've only ever experienced from the podium in front of an orchestra," said Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "They are truly stunning: open and natural sound with striking realism."
And GQ headphones deliver this striking realism longer, thanks to the roughly 70% extended battery life due to the advantages of graphene.
Ora may have discovered the absolute ideal material to produce impeccable sound and is giving us a foretaste of graphene's future.
The futuristic material Ora is using to create impeccable sound has only been known about since 2004, when two Russian scientists at the University of Manchester – Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov – discovered how to extract graphene by "playing" around with flakes of graphite with the help of sticky Scotch tape.
Today, the "Scotch tape method" – repeatedly peeling off layers from graphite flakes until getting down to flakes that are only a few atoms thick-has become the stuff of legends.
This flash of whimsy led them down to the thinnest of all layers, a single atom thick. This 2D material dubbed graphene has some unique and immensely interesting properties.
The realization of the potential of the material they discovered with the help of Scotch tape led to the Russian scientists winning a joint Nobel prize in physics in 2010 for their ground-breaking experiments.
Graphene is, basically, a single atomic layer of graphite that is made up of very tightly bonded carbon atoms organized into a hexagonal lattice.
Due to the carbon to carbon bonds in graphene being so small and tightly locked together, its makeup prevents it from fluctuating and destabilizing.
One of the most promising and useful properties discovered about graphene is that it is a zero-overlap semi-metal, meaning it has electron holes and electrons as charge carriers that give it an extremely high electrical conductivity.
Because of this, it is highly regarded for its potential to improve batteries, computers, space vehicles, medical devices, and even to desalinate water.
This highly conductive material also happens to be exceedingly strong. Testing has shown graphene has a tensile strength, or how much it can be pulled until it breaks, of 18.85 million pounds per square inch.
By way of comparison, A36 structural steel has a tensile strength of 58,000 psi. Kevlar, another material known for being incredibly strong, has a tensile strength of roughly 55,000 psi.
This means that graphene is roughly 340 times stronger than the material law enforcement officers use to stop bullets and it is extremely lightweight.
If a single sheet of graphene were made large enough to cover an entire football field, it would weigh under one gram.
Optics, sterilization, conductivity, strength and weight, graphene has an astronomical amount of potential and all from an abundant resource found on the planet.
"Over the last couple of years, we've seen a rise of commercial applications based on graphene," said graphene co-discoverer Novoselov.
With its discovery of graphene's effectiveness for audio technology and the ability to commercially manufacture a viable product with this wonder material, Ora is more than just making history as the developer of the world's first graphene headphones.
"Ora's GrapheneQ headphones clearly stand special as one of the first consumer products to feature a high-content graphene technology – without substrates or polymers," Novoselov added. "These headphones are the first audio consumer product that unlocks the exciting material properties of graphene in high fidelity sound transduction. Kudos to Ora's scientists, graphene is officially out of the lab and into the audio world!"
Out of the lab, it is likely that GrapheneQ is an early note in a long symphony of products that will take advantage of the unique properties graphene has to offer.