AZoM met with James Baker, newly appointed CEO at the National Graphene Institute (NGI), to talk about developments in Graphene research and the industry.
Graphene was discovered here in Manchester - 14 years on, what does the industry look like?
The first isolation of graphene in Manchester in 2004, was driven by curiosity. The original experiments were related to ‘Friday night’ blue sky thinking and a playful approach to science. There was no commercial reason, but two Manchester physicists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov measured the graphene they had isolated and found it possessed many fantastic properties.
14 years is still quite young for a discovery. To put that into context, carbon fiber probably took 25-30 years from discovery through to the first commercial application. So I often use the term that graphene's only a teenager. As a new material, it's quite early days.
Working on Graphene composites (Image Credits: The University of Manchester)
Having said that, already it's moving very quickly in simple applications; for example, where graphene is added to a resin, to a composite, to a coating or a plastic. At Manchester today we have over 300 researchers across the University, working on graphene and 2D materials. We've had about 90 industrial partners to date working on graphene projects and activities - that's from sponsoring projects to Ph.D.'s, through to engaging in large collaborative programs.
So, 14 years young, but already it's starting to get increasing amounts of interest from industry. One key challenge is how to make graphene. Increasingly people are finding many different ways of taking graphite and breaking it down into graphene, or by taking gasses and depositing that as a layer onto a substrate. There are probably many hundreds of suppliers of graphene material and many different ways of producing it. Today you can buy it by the gram, by the kilo and even by the ton.
The challenges we face are probably less to do with graphene and more to do with layers of graphene or nanoplatelets. It is still quite difficult to produce a very pure single layer, but for many applications, you don't need a single layer. You need a few layers.
I would argue that the graphene supply chain is maturing, by producing a reasonable quantity at a reasonable price. You can now purchase graphene at less than $100 for a kilo at a good quality and consistency. Based on this, a graphene standard has now been introduced. At Manchester we produced a best practice guide with National Physical Laboratory, so you're starting to see the foundation of a material supply chain in place. Not just here in Manchester and the UK, but across the world.
For me, the more exciting bit is the application. Add graphene to rubber, paint or a composite, and again you start to see those early products at the market; for example, tires, bicycles, training shoes. We've recently been involved in a company called Inov-8 and launched a new training shoe with them that's got more durability with a huge increase in grip and flexibility.
Tennis rackets, skis, skeleton bobsleigh, are all examples where people have used graphene as much for marketing as for value because I think you now start to see those industries having some benefit or some value from adding graphene to their products.
What industries do you think graphene will have the most impact in?
Graphene has got potential everywhere. It's got potential in many markets, from aerospace and automotive to wearables, IoT and biomedical. For me, the exciting bit is when you start to combine functionalities and features.
Just to give a couple of examples, aerospace - if I can add graphene to my wing, can I make it lighter, with a longer range and lower manufacturing costs? Can I also de-ice my wing using graphene as a thermal conductor? One of the properties of graphene people are using is the mechanical strength or stiffness, but they're also looking at things like electrical and thermal conductivity.
Graphene's got this multi-functionality, which then plays into energy and energy storage. Can we add it to batteries? Is it a new material I can use, so it plays a role in many parts of the battery, or could it play a super-capacitor role in the battery? In the future, there might be a hybrid system that uses batteries and super-capacitors.
2D materials research (Image Credits: the University of Manchester)
If adding graphene to fabric as a strain sensor or as a heart rate monitor is possible, can we then start combining that with Fitbits or electronic devices?
In electronics itself, people have talked about creating bendable phones that you can wrap around your wrist, or you can stick to your skin. There's a workup about graphene tattoos - a printable tattoo on your skin that detects temperature or blood pressure or heart rate.
Other than the properties mentioned above, what kind of benefits does graphene have?
I think the main benefit for me is multi-functionality. Where it starts to have a benefit is when one of those features can be a competitive advantage. We're adding graphene to a composite to make it stiffer, make it lighter and use less material. If it’s possible to give any additional features within one single material, it makes it even more attractive compared to traditional materials.
One of graphene’s more impressive applications is as a tunable filter. You can take salty, dirty water and pass it through a graphene membrane to only allow drinking water to pass through. This concept of a tunable filter that allows certain things to pass through but blocks other things covers everything from water desalination, gas separation, through to nuclear isotope separation, and anti-corrosion coatings.
Using graphene as an additive is an area which is quite quickly. Graphene now has some real disruptive opportunities, which could start to change the way we do things. Part of our mission is to convert that potential of graphene into reality. The challenge we have is that there are lots of stories about what graphene can do, but what is graphene doing at the moment? How do I do that at scale, at value, and make it repeatable?
There's a lot of noise out there, so we have a lot of companies who come to us and say two things: either that graphene doesn't work, or they tried graphene and it works, but they can't get it to repeat. It comes to fundamentally what we're trying to do here. The foundation of our model if you like is that basis of fundamental science. We understand the chemistry, the material science, the physics behind the material, but also we now are understanding how you formulate and how you mix that graphene into something in a commercial sense.
What is the Graphene Flagship?
The Graphene Flagship is a European program. It's a ten-year program and was put in place to realize the potentials of graphene. Graphene is international. It's not just the UK and Europe - it's also China and America. It's truly international.
The Graphene Flagship has pulled together a program of work that looks at the underpinning science but increasingly looks at how we create products and applications. We're part of a Graphene Flagship innovation work package that's looking at how we create value through patenting intellectual property and commercializing.
Closer to home, could you explain the idea of a 'Graphene City'?
Graphene city is quite deliberately taken from the idea of Silicon Valley. Rather than copying Silicon Valley. However, we’re not working with silicone which is mature, and we're not developing software which has a much shorter development timeframe - we are advanced materials. We're never going to be making new material in a day, or a week, or overnight.
We can, however, create what we call ‘the ecosystem’. If you go to San Francisco into the Valley, you can go to a coffee bar and meet an entrepreneur, an inventor, an engineer, an investor, and a lawyer. Over a coffee, you can almost create a business. In a way, we're trying to do the same here in Manchester. Partly because of the NGI, but in particular when the GEIC opens.
The NGI in Manchester (Image Credits: The University of Manchester)
What we're trying to do is create this ecosystem of not just inventors and companies, but also lawyers, investors, entrepreneurs and people who work alongside those companies to take them to market.
The other thing we're trying to do is increase the pace. If it were to take 25 years to for an idea to materialize as a product, 25 years from a conversation through to a product - people aren't that patient. If we can do that more quickly and reproduce it by half, or by a factor then suddenly people will know Manchester as the place to do business with, and we can create value from ideas and investment. It could be that you're someone who knows how to set up businesses, someone that runs conferences - all those different skills and attributes we're trying to bring together. If we can do that, then we're on that road to Graphene City.
For me, graphene city already helps people externally. We’ve got the University, the NGI, the GEIC, a number of start-ups and projects, and there are starting to be more companies involved.
The GEIC in Manchester - the building will open in October 2018 (Image Credits: The University of Manchester)
There are now at least two material suppliers based here in Greater Manchester. One was a spin-out from the University, and one was a local company that is now making graphene material for the graphene applications.
We are starting to see the first steps of that ecosystem forming, and we have relationships and partnerships with them. By working together, we can find a way of mutually creating/providing graphene material. If we use our material and it's the right material for an application, then the company can go to that company to buy material and create a regular supply.
How do you think Graphene is progressing? Is the UK keeping up with the rest of the world?
I think if you look at it as 14-years young, it's moving incredibly quickly, but if you look at the press as a general statement, they're impatient. They think that China, for example, is progressing quicker than us because they’ve measured patents, or they measure a different metric. Graphene is still at that early stage where there only are few products out there. Probably more graphene marketing than anything.
In the next 12 to 18 months, you'll see an increase in products starting to hit the marketplace. Many will be from the UK, but many will also be from China, or America, or Europe. There's no exclusivity on this. China has a very different approach to the UK. They tend to want to build very large factories for the material’s production and development.
What we don't want to do is to give all of the know-how away without a framework or program in place. We have a number of projects with Chinese organizations to develop projects, but we are also looking to get some return from those projects. Unfortunately, there's a lot of impatience around why we're not seeing products yet because the potential benefits are so huge.
About James Baker
With 25 years of experience in the defense, aerospace and security market, and after joining the University of Manchester and the NGI in 2014 as Graphene Business Director, James was created the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Graphene Institute in January 2018.
He will be leading the commercialization, application, and acceleration of 2D materials, both as products and within academic research.
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