James Baker, Business Director at the National Graphene Institute (NGI), talks to AZoNano about the successful commercialisation of graphene and the important role collaborative work between research and industry will play.
Can you please give a brief overview of the current graphene industry as it stands from your point of view?
First of all, graphene is only 10 years old. The material was first isolated in 2004 by scientist from Manchester University. Some people think, “Gosh, 10 years is a long time, shouldn’t we be using graphene in every day life, what’s taking so long?” Ten years is a long time, but not for new materials, which typically take 20, 30 or even 40 years before they appear on the mainstream market.
However, we had our Business School do some market research, and they found that there over 600 producers of graphene on the internet. So in other words, you can buy graphene from at least 600 sources. But is it graphene, graphite, carbon black, one layer, two layer, five layer, this purity, this impurity, top-down, bottom-up? We don’t really know. There’s been quite a lot of talk over recent years about graphene production. How do you produce it at scale and at a sustainable cost?
To answer your question: we’re starting to see some good developments surrounding graphene production. Research departments and industry leaders are starting to produce kilograms rather than grams. People talk about selling you a ton, but if it’s a ton, it’s probably not graphene, it’s more likely to be carbon black.
There is still quite a lot of confusion surrounding the material supply. However, the area for me that’s more interesting than material supply is the application, and I think we are starting to see some rapid progress in this area.
The classic example people talk about is the HEAD graphene tennis racket- 99.9% graphite and a small percentage of graphene. We’ve actually looked at the racket and it does contain graphene making it slightly stronger, slightly lighter, better sweet spot and commercially it’s a success.
Another example is the LED light bulb that we announced earlier this year. Shortly there will be things like RFID tags which are smart tags that are strong, flexible, increased range in terms of antenna. You’re starting to see new products appear as the application research continues. Others include inks, paints, lubricants etc.
We are now starting to see industries get beyond that hype stage, if you like, and now develop a better understanding of how to add graphene to their composite, to their plastic, to their coating, to their ink and produce a few niche-type applications.
Today at The University of Manchester, we’ve got about 41 industrial partners working on graphene projects, 225 researchers working across the area. Graphene has gone from very theoretical physics through to very multidisciplinary material science, chemistry, biomedical, physics approach. We are now at the stage where we are forming partnerships on projects to take graphene into these various new applications.
These 2D crystals can be assembled in 3D heterostructures that do not exist in nature and present unique physical properties due to low dimensionality and a special crystal structure.
My experience is in industry and I used to share the same view as many industry professionals, “Graphene is still very young, it’s still immature. I’m going to wait 5-10 years until it matures before I can see stick it on my aircraft”. Now I work for the University and my views have changed. I’ve seen first-hand the rapid progression graphene has made. By engaging with research and industry, we can see real world applications in the much nearer term. For example, a full structural part of a wing in an aircraft is probably still 10 years away. This is partly due to technology, but mostly it’s because of the risk certification, testing, qualification. In the aerospace industry it is extremely important to consider the risk associated with new, untested materials. However, getting graphene onto an aircraft in a non-structural role could happen within the next 12 to 18 months. This could be a paste, a filler, a layer within a connector. I think graphene could supplement an existing product to improve performance in the near term.
What current problems are slowing the commercialisation of graphene and how do you think these can be overcome?
Technology is key. We need people making graphene to overcome some of the technical challenges associated with scale up, cost, at the right yield, at the right quality assurance. Standards, measurement; characterization are key to the success of graphene.
There are six hundred forms of graphene on the internet, all calling it graphene, but probably 600 very different materials not only when you buy them, but whenever you might buy them again.
If you’re going to commercialize your product, you’ve got to define the production at the right yield, at the right cost and at the right quality assurance standards. We recently held a session here at the institute partnered with the National Physical Laboratory, which looked at how we can tackle the challenges surrounding standards, measurement, characterization, and how to get the U.K. to set the benchmark.
We can achieve this by working with institutes like the NGI and NPL and collaborating with equipment manufacturers like the Brukers, the Oxford Instruments; and the manufacturers like the 2-DTechs, the Haydales, the AGMs (Applied Graphene Materials); to develop the standards for the rest of the world. For me, that’s absolutely key if you’re going to scale graphene successfully.
Tunnelling transistor based on vertical graphene heterostructures. Tunnelling current between two graphene layers can be controlled by gating.
From my viewpoint though, what’s more important than the material is the application. What I call the pull. The tennis racket, for example, had a different approach. They looked to re-engineer their racket and then they got graphene to meet their specification. They don’t need a huge quantity, because it’s only small grams per tennis racket, but they’ve really understood the benefits for the application and were then able to scale up affordably the graphene that they need at the right quality and the right standard.
I think the bigger challenge at the moment is how do you mix graphene into a composite, or into an ink, or into a paint or add it to electronics, and how do you then get the performance you’re actually looking to achieve? Because if you don’t make anything stronger, lighter, cheaper, faster, then the consumer won’t pay a small fee for adding graphene to your product. So for me, the application is where the real challenge is and what you’ve got here at the NGI is the ability to co-locate industry and academia together to address those challenges.
A good example of this is Morgan Advanced Materials, who recently partnered with the University. They are looking to scale up the graphene material using an electrochemical process for producing the graphene. They then want to mix that graphene material into a number of applications they want to take to market, and they’re doing that in a very rapid concurrent engineering-type roll.
A traditional model would involve the University doing some work for two, three years, handing it over to the industry who would then do some work and you would iterate it. It’d probably take five to ten years using that method. In two years, we’ve developed a potential co-located team and Morgan have brought engineers and process kit to the NGI, working alongside the academic team at a very rapid pace. This collaboration between industry and academia can achieve things much quicker and much cheaper.
What industries and applications do you think will be the early adopters of commercially available graphene on a large scale?
It’s following a pattern from previous new technologies. I look at composites used in products like the HEAD tennis rackets, sports, Formula One, skis, mountain biking and its clear to see that some of those quite niche areas could start using graphene. We’ve also seen a lot of interest from the U.S. defense. However, I think sports goods and people who’ve got maybe a niche product who will be the early adopters of commercially available graphene.
Take a corrosion coating for example. There are a lot of technical challenges and production challenges to develop a corrosion coating for a car or for a plane or for a certain steel. But maybe for a niche application where it’s quite specialized, where corrosion is really critical, graphene could play a role. I think it’s those niche applications in the near term, and then in the longer term you’ll start seeing it in the more mass markets.
There are exceptions, like the graphene light bulb and the RFID. If you can now apply graphene to lighting, suddenly small scale becomes large scale.
With RFID, the initial application would probably be a security tag. It’s stronger, flexible, can be printed on a card, maybe on your security pass which can detect where you are in a building. That’s quite niche, quite specialized, and people pay a premium for that added performance.
We recently spoke with Dr. Ania Servant from the NGI about the challenges facing the commercialisation of graphene. She referenced the graphene roadmap. Have the predictions made to this point been accurate and are there any new predictions you have moving forward?
Roadmaps are good because it starts communication. I think it’s moving faster than probably some people expected. With roadmaps, there’s also an expectation, “Is that first market, is it the first demonstrator or is it mass market?” So the light bulb, for example, that hit the market as a demonstrator at the end of last year, but could be on the market within six months or so. I think it’s generally ahead of where we expected.
If you look at history, technology is moving a lot faster than in the past. For example, the time it took to get carbon fiber into mainstream aerospace markets was about 35-40 years. It first started in Formula One, tennis rackets, some defense applications. The Airbus A350, which I think is about 56% composite now, but that’s 35-40 years from the first discovery.
Dr Ponomarenko who carried out this work shows his research sample: graphene quantum dots on a chip.
Carbon fiber took a long time to make it to the mass market. If you go back through those 40 years as an example, they didn’t have something called an autoclave when they first discovered composites. For three or four of those years industry had to develop big ovens to cure the composite sufficiently to enable them to produce a wing. Some of this time was purely spent on technology and some of it was just coming up with new processes, new methodologies, and new equipment. To an extent, graphene won’t have to do that, so it can go arguably quicker than some of the technologies in the past.
Earlier this year we saw the introduction of the graphene light bulb based on a strategic partnership with the NGI and Graphene Lighting PLC. How has this product developed since its introduction?
This is a very good case study. It’s not the most exciting academic application of graphene, but it's exploiting the thermal management properties of graphene. It’s more conductive than all metals. Everyone knows about the conductivity properties that graphene offers and people have experimented with this in different areas.
The light bulb was born out of a conversation between the senior academics and our industrial partner who knew about this. “What if we experiment?” They did that and iterated it a number of times to produce a simple prototype. The light bulb is more efficient because it dissipates the heat more effectively, has a longer life because the components don’t get as hot and wear out, and potentially lower cost because you can get rid of some of the expensive parts found in conventional light bulbs.
The next step is to start to re-engineer the light bulb. There is a company now looking at how they re-engineer, with those new features, a different type of light bulb. They can now do different things that they couldn’t do with conventional light bulbs that means potentially, if they can engineer it, they’ve got a light bulb that’s even more efficient, last longer, and potentially looks different.
This is a good example of engagement from a science, the University has come in to play a role of the know-how, the knowledge of graphene, the material, how it disperses, how it works, how you produce it; the industrial partner has brought in that engineering expertise and knowledge of the market.
What reaction has the NGI had since its grand opening earlier this year?
It’s generated a lot of excitement. First of all, we only opened up very recently and there’s lots of very expensive kit that’s being commissioned and being set up and we already seeing some fantastic things happening. For example, one of the Nobel Prize scientists has been running an experiment in very tightly controlled conditions since the building opened, something he couldn’t have done before. So academically, our scientists are able to do things that they couldn’t do before.
We’ve also had huge interest from our industrial partners. Forty-one partners aren’t all in here at once, but a lot of those signed up to projects before the NGI was built or even contemplated. Some of our new partners are now starting to run their projects through the building. We could fill this building overnight, but part of the challenge is actually to get the right things in here with the right people to really grow the graphene story. That’s really the focus for the coming weeks and months.
If you had to pick one topic that will be at the forefront of the graphene industry over the next twelve months, what would that be?
Partnership and collaboration. From my experience working in industry, the best example of working with academia is where you really engage. Engage doesn’t mean just supplying money to a project. It means money, people, engineering, co-locations. So having this building enables us to co-locate both academics and industrial partners together, and by collaborating, I believe we can accelerate the adoption of graphene. So for me, this building is it’s like a big accelerator. By engaging in this facility with this infrastructure, you can improve the probability and increase the chances of success of your application working. No guarantee. There’s still risk, there’s still challenges, but we’re increasing the probability of success.
About James Baker
After 25 years in the defence, aerospace and security market leading and managing high technology businesses I am now Business Director for [email protected]
Graphene, the exciting and emerging disruptive technology first isolated at The University of Manchester - now looking to develop a number of commercialisation opportunities in partnership with industry together with the National Graphene Institute (NGI) and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) in The University of Manchester.
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