Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker, Executive Director of the National Graphene Association (NGA), talks to AZoNano about the current state of the graphene market and how global standards can help sercure the materials future.
What does your role as director of the National Graphene Association involve?
One primary aspect of my role is that of a “connector” and facilitator. I work with current stakeholders in the graphene field to not only shape an industry focus that accelerates commercialization of graphene but also to identify and target sectors that could be the future stakeholders and end users of graphene.
In this regard, as the executive director of the NGA, and furthermore as a scientist, my responsibility is to promote graphene in the right light and advocate for its true and realistic potential without perpetuating the hype. Sometimes these target industries are likely allies such as ship building companies, the automotive industry, etc, and sometimes they are quite “unlikely” allies! A good example of that would be our partnership with the hemp industry. I’ve had multiple productive discussions with the Executive Director of the National Hemp Association in the past few months. At first glance, you might think what does hemp have to do with graphene? The answer is wait and see. That is the beauty of this unlikely but fruitful alliance that would not have happened organically.
At the end of the day, it is all about people, relationships and partnerships. My job is to look at the graphene industry as a whole, identify gaps in the ecosystem and bring the “people” to the table to have a dialogue and facilitate mending the disjointed elements.
What are the current issues surrounding the successful commercialization of graphene products in the US?
Some of the critical challenges are not region-specific. To name a few: The lack of industry standards, chaos in the supply market regarding price, quality and material consistency, unrealistic expectations that are the direct result of the hype surrounding graphene, the academia-industry disconnect and the length of time that it takes to bridge the gap between the two.
We often hear that the main barrier for the commercialization of graphene is the price and mass scale production. That is not quite correct anymore. We need to stop repeating this mantra and focus on the real issue. In the past few years we have seen a significant price drop and increase in production scale capacity. The challenge is no longer the scale of production or even the price, it is the inconsistency and batch-dependency of the graphene that is produced in large scale and lack of standardized methodology to consistently characterise and evaluate it.
The other issue that I would like to point out is the disconnect amongst the graphene community and the absence of a “global network.”
I often say: “The first step is to know who is doing what and where.” It might sound like such a simplistic statement but a large number of our member’s issues arise from the lack of understanding of the graphene commercial landscape, companies, organizations, supply sources, applications developers and R&D facilities.
For example: Quite recently I had a discussion with a graphene company that just raised a few $M to develop a product they did not know is already a commercially available product in China! I see this story Often. It is not that the company did not do their homework, it is that access to the Chinese graphene market information is not easy. That is why at the NGA we have an emphasis on international ties and partnerships that will make it easier for our members to access and navigate the global graphene market.
To circle back to the US specific issues: Lack of patient capital when it comes to graphene Research and Development - Venture Capital firms shying away from graphene ventures due to the inherent risk and longer times required for the return on investment. And lastly, absence of infrastructure for framework initiatives such as the European Commission’s Graphene Flagship.
Why is standard development important and what is NGA doing?
The issue of standards was not on my radar until I started a company that required sourcing graphene materials. That’s when I finally understood why industry standards exist!
Let’s take the simple example of nomenclature. Lack of an agreed-upon answer to the simple question: “What can be called graphene?” is taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies every day.
There are hundreds of graphene suppliers world-wide. Most use the term “graphene” to describe their product and yet there are sometimes 2 to 3 orders of magnitude disparity in the price. This creates a great degree of confusion and to make matters worse, if tested, most of these base materials are graphitic or carbon black.
That is why as a member of American National standards Institute (ANSI) U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 229, NGA is actively participating in the development of standards for graphene.
I cannot emphasize enough the gravity of this issue. If we can’t all agree and abide by a set of common lexicon and standardized characterization and testing protocols which would enable buyers to easily verify and compare physical parameters, we cannot expect large scale adoption of graphene.
Why did graphene get so much attention and was such a success compared to other avenues of research?
First two-dimensional material discovered, the thinnest material in the world, the strongest, best electricity conductor, extremely flexible, transparent…trust me… you are guaranteed to get people’s attention!
I was meant to do a PhD in the field of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), I took one look at graphene and I completely changed direction. As a physicist, I simply couldn’t resist the linear energy band structure and the fact that electrons in graphene behave as massless Dirac fermions! It is science fiction meeting reality.
You can add to the mix the fact that graphene has been known in theory since 1947, however, its existence and stability in the ambient environment was questioned. It was looked for but never discovered. So, in 2004, when graphene was exfoliated from graphite by a simple method such as Scotch tape, it created such an excitement in the community.
The large number of extraordinary properties all in one package made it a multi-disciplinary attraction and researchers from every field flocked to study every aspect of graphene. This created such a fast paced, dynamic and vibrant research atmosphere that sort of revived the basic science/nanotechnology funding in the U.S.
Which industries do you think will be the early adopters of commercialized graphene products?
There are two ways to look at how graphene can be used in product development. The first approach is that graphene is adding value in a novel and entirely innovative way solely due its unique properties. For example, in certain graphene-based biosensors, photodetector, or flexible WiFi receivers, the application is only possible because of graphene and graphene is irreplaceable.
The second approach is to use graphene to enhance already existing products. An example of that is when graphene is added to composites and plastics to improve tensile strength, thermal conductivity or when graphene is added to ink or paste to make it electrically conductive.
This is where we have and will see the first steps towards commercialization being taken. Industries that will use graphene as an additive, and here we are talking about graphene in the powder form, will be the first large adopters of graphene. The Next-Gen, high tech optoelectronics applications of graphene will soon follow on the second wave.
How will the NGA graphene innovation summit & expo help the graphene industry move towards this goal? What can members of the graphene industry hope to gain from attending in October?
Graphene Innovation Summit & Expo, Oct 29-31 is the first event in the US that is solely dedicated to the commercialization of graphene. It is a gathering of the main stakeholders from graphene companies, startups, tech transfer offices of universities and national labs, investors, government agencies and standard bodies to come together and discuss expediting the commercialization of graphene.
I personally believe something magical happens when you put people in one room together. They start to talk, communicate, share in ways that are not quite possible or organic through a long chain of emails or phone calls. These physical forums are where opportunities are discovered, alliances and deals are made, challenges are solved and academic-industry collaborations are formed. We have been in desperate need of a graphene forum in the United States and now GISE provides the perfect arena.
Can you tell us about the 5-minute pitches aimed at commercialization?
In the conventional format of a conference, you can interact with the audience either through delivering a long format talk or if you are an established company through exhibiting.
The 5-minute pitches are formatted differently. They are open to all attendees to apply for and they provide the chance to give an elevator speech to the entire audience at the conference in one setting.
If you are a company and you have a graphene product you would like to showcase or you are a start-up or a research lab with a prototype looking for graphene suppliers, collaborators or investors. Or perhaps you are not a graphene stakeholder but you want to know if graphene could enhance your already existing product or help your industry and you are looking for insight or partnerships, the 5 min pitches are your chance to get on the stage, address the audience of graphene stakeholders and tell your story in an engaging fashion.
Where can our readers learn more?
I encourage anyone with an interest in graphene commercialization to join us in Nashville. To learn more or to register for the Graphene Innovation Summit visit https://www.nationalgrapheneassociation.com/nashville-graphene-summit
About Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker
Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker, is the Executive Director of the National Graphene Association (NGA). NGA is the main organization and body in the United States promoting and advocating for the commercialization of graphene and graphene based technologies. Zina Jarrahi Cinker received a PhD in the field of Graphene optoelectronics and ultrafast spectroscopy from Vanderbilt University with a focus on electron-phonon interactions at the interface of graphene. Prior to joining the NGA, she served as the CTO and founder of G.Element, a consulting and application development company in the graphene composite sector.
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