Interview conducted by Will Soutter
In this interview, Ray Gibbs, CEO of Haydale, talks to AZoNano about Haydale's unique plasma technology, the benefits of graphene functionalisation, and how the future looks for graphene-based products.
WS: To start with, can you give us a brief overview of Haydale's technology?
RG: Haydale is positioned as a materials processing company – we can take other manufacturers’ raw materials, and make them work in a commercial application by functionalising them properly. Surface functionalisation fundamentally means putting chemical groups onto the surface of the materials.
Our enabling technology which allows us to do this is a proprietary, scalable plasma process, which is patent applied for. Our process gives us the ability to work with everyone in the marketplace who is making graphene or nanomaterials, and add value through functionalisation.
The way we see it, the key barrier to entry for getting graphene into the market is getting it to mix well and covalently bond with other materials. Because graphene is inherently inert, it doesn’t bond well naturally with other things, and our process can effectively change the properties of the graphene so that it mixes more efficiently.
WS: Haydale sits in an interesting place in the market, between raw material suppliers and product developers - was there a clear pre-existing niche there, or is it a space that you've carved out for yourselves?
RG: I had the real “eureka moment” about 6 or 9 months ago. We were trying to sell functionalised graphene directly into the marketplace. I was thinking about the different ways to compete, to differentiate your product – primarily price and performance.
I realised that we didn’t really want to compete on price, since that just tends to wind up in a race to the bottom, and favours the company who can squeeze their margins the most.
With our current approach, if the price in the market goes down, we are happy, because we can buy it cheaper and get products to market quicker. But really, whatever price the material sits at, we can add value for the real applications in the marketplace.
Did we carve the niche out for ourselves – I don’t know. The idea does seem to have caught on, and people understand what we are doing and how that fits into the landscape. Functionalisation — the “F” word — is now on everyone’s lips as the most important means of commercialising graphene.
Haydale's proprietary plasma process functionalises the material in a benign, environmentally friendly way.
WS: Can you give us a bit more detail about the chemistry that's going on in your processes, and what makes the plasma process so unique?
RG: The process takes place in a low-pressure vessel – a rotating drum, with a central electrode that generates the plasma. We have the ability to use a significant range of gases to create those radicals on the surface of the materials – basically we can put whatever surface functionalisation we want on it, for compatibility with the material it’s going into.
The process functionalises the material in a benign, environmentally friendly way. We don’t use acid processing, and it’s a dry functionalisation treatment – the material goes in and comes out completely dry with no hazardous waste stream. It is also compatible with any carbon-based nanomaterials, like nanotubes, and any kind of graphene materials.
Graphene varies significantly depending on the source and supplier, which is an issue for engineers seeking to use it in applications. Haydale are developing a range of standardised products which starts to overcome this issue, but greater standardisation and product characterisation is needed globally to address this situation.
The technical definition of graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms, and we like to try and stick with that. If you are talking about flecks of carbon around 2-10 layers thick, we call that few-layer graphene. Beyond that point you have graphene nanoplatelets, which can be up to 100 layers thick, or more. Beyond that you are in the world of graphite.
WS: Why is this process so helpful in developing the applications of graphene and CNTs?
RG: Because graphene is a carbon-based material, graphene materials (and graphite) generally don’t mix very well with other things. You can force it into a matrix mechanically, but there is no guarantee that it will covalently bond.
If you want to create bonds, you need to create a chemical radical, which will hook onto the bulk material you are using. That’s why functionalisation is important – it is basically just creating the radical hooks that allow the graphene to bond properly with your bulk material.
If you asked people in industry who are trying to work with graphene, I think many of them would now say that they are looking at functionalisation as a way to make their applications work. However, the conventional way to do this is using acid, which is far from ideal, as it damages the structure of the material.
WS: What are the main applications you are looking at initially - and what are the applications with most commercial promise?
RG: We are currently focusing on the clean energy market, because there is a lot of research effort going into that field at the moment.
We are getting a lot of offers to collaborate on grant-funded projects – there is a fair amount of money available for graphene research at the moment, from Horizon 2020, the Technology Strategy Board in the UK, and so on.
There is also a lot of interest from the composites industry, where graphene is quite interesting for things like thermal heat management. There are also some people looking at 3D printing materials with graphene – this is an interesting area for us, as you need quite a specific size of material to work with the printing process. Because we can work with any kind of material, we are well placed to apply our technology to that area – we’re not reliant on one specific material.
We are also selling our own powder materials ourselves, through our website. It’s quite a low volume activity, but it is also a very important activity - the people who use our materials write papers about the work, which lends us credibility. Many of our projects have also started this way, where a research team has bought some of our material, then come back for more and ended up working with us.
WS: So do you think that applications in energy and composites are more commercially viable than higher-value products like transparent conductors for touchscreens?
RG: The problem with the touchscreen market, which is dominated by ITO, is that it is a very well-established industry. The companies who make ITO screens that you and I work with every day have invested millions of dollars into their production line equipment – it makes sense that they might not want to scrap all of that capital expenditure to move to a new material.
That change may well happen at some point, but that isn’t something that we can control. So our approach is not to try to force something onto a market that might not be able to change.
Fundamentally, we don’t want to tie ourselves down to one technology area. If a manufacturer has one particular application they focus on – supercapacitors, for example – and the route to that market gets blocked, that could be a real problem. The way we are working now, we have lots of different projects, so if one area gets closed off, there are plenty of other things we can switch to.
WS: So how soon do you think graphene products will start having a real impact in the marketplace?
RG: We think graphene has every opportunity to change the world we live in, and to do it soon. It is really encouraging that manufacturers are starting to say that they can make 100 tons of their material – that sort of scale will start to make the price drop, which will make it easier to compete with other materials on the market.
If you are trying to get graphene into a market, and it needs to be loaded by 50% less than the material it is replacing and costs 25% more, then it is likely to be taken up by industry, because you can deliver better value for money.
Established manufacturers will not change their process unless there is either a cost advantage and/or a performance advantage – and I’m arguing we could do both. Having graphene available on the market in considerable volumes is only going to help that now.
WS: Where can we find more information about Haydale?
RG: The best place to start is on our website – there’s plenty of information on there, and we are happy for people to get in touch with us if they would like to find out more.
About Ray Gibbs
Ray Gibbs is a Chartered Accountant, and former Deloitte audit and corporate finance partner for 9 years.
He has spent the last 18 years in industry as CFO or commercial director of high technology and fast moving consumer goods businesses both in the quoted and private arenas with sales ranging from £500,000 to £500 million. He was a former CFO of Chemring Group Plc.