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Quality Is Timeless: How a 170-Year-Old Speciality Chemical Company Found Itself at the Forefront of Graphene

Posted By Dexter Johnson, IEEE Spectrum, Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Updated: Wednesday, September 21, 2016

 

When we think of graphene, we conjure up cutting-edge and emerging technologies that have a place in a sci-fi movie, and rightly so. But to make those dreams into reality it is coming down to a nearly two-century-old specialty chemical company to produce the building blocks. William Blythe, a 170-year-old inorganic specialty chemical and advanced materials company based in the UK, has established itself as one of the premier graphene oxide producers, enabling other companies to fabricate next-generation devices.

In May of this year, William Blythe added graphene oxide to its portfolio of products and ramped up production of the material to large lab-scale manufacturing, reaching kilogram capacity production. At this point, the company can manufacture up to 20 kg of powdered graphene oxide per annum with the aim of increasing to tonnage scale in the next 6 – 12 months.

To accompany the launch of this new product line, William Blythe has created its GOgraphene website at which you can order the company’s graphene oxide product, as well as find a blog that discusses the experience of launching a graphene-based business.

The Graphene Council took the opportunity of this recent business launch to talk to William Blythe’s Global Marketing & Sales Director, Marc C.G. de Pater, and in the interview below you can read how this company evolved and found itself at the forefront of  one of the most cutting-edge materials, graphene.

Q: Can you explain how a 170-year-old specialty chemical company like William Blythe found itself transitioning into the production of graphene oxide?

A: William Blythe was originally founded to support the textile industry, however over the last 170 years, William Blythe has transformed into an inorganic chemicals manufacturer, who is now on its way to becoming an advanced materials supplier. The expertise William Blythe has developed over the years, as well as its focus on innovation and product development, means the chemistry of graphene oxide fits very well with William Blythe core capabilities.

Q: Can you explain a little bit about the graphene oxide dispersions you produce and how these dispersions fit into the value chain that ultimately lead to products that may find their way into our store shelves?

A: William Blythe currently manufactures a high concentration graphene oxide dispersion at 10 mg/mL, or 1%. The manufacture of a high concentration is designed to maximize the options for graphene oxide users – the optimal concentration of graphene oxide is still being researched but is likely to be highly dependent on the application in question. Higher graphene oxide concentrations can lead to difficulty when diluting the dispersion, however William Blythe has developed a dispersion which can be very easily diluted, as demonstrated in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLixtvZRq0w.

In terms of the value chain, the nature of graphene oxide means William Blythe is positioned at the start. The graphene oxide dispersions offered allow William Blythe’s customers an opportunity to revolutionize the products they sell. Any graphene oxide, or graphene oxide derivative, that ends up on the store shelves is likely to be present in small concentrations, with consumers only aware of its presence through the enhanced properties they observe in the products they purchase.

Q: Why has your company struck upon graphene oxide production rather than single-crystal monolayer graphene? Was that because of what your customers were looking for or did it fit your business plans better in terms of both current production and how you see the market developing?

A: A combination of both – while the chemistry of graphene oxide synthesis fits very well with William Blythe expertise, there is also a strong argument for graphene oxide use over graphene in many situations. Graphene is a hydrophobic material, which means it can be very difficult to obtain good dispersions in various media. Graphene oxide, however, is highly hydrophilic and is reported to disperse very well in many polar solvents. By obtaining the required dispersion with graphene oxide and then reducing to graphene, graphene oxide may also allow users to gain the desired properties of graphene while achieving the dispersion characteristics needed.  William Blythe therefore believes graphene oxide has the ability to exist in the graphene market, employed in systems and applications where graphene would not be suitable.

Q: There seems to be an issue of wide disparity in the quality of graphene products. Is this something that will just be sorted out in the marketplace, or do you think standards will need to be instituted before this problem is fully addressed?

A: Graphene products are so new to the market it is understandable that there is so much variation in product quality. As more users investigate and adopt graphene or graphene oxide products into their applications, a consensus is likely to evolve naturally over what constitutes appropriate material for use. Formal standards may come into place at some point, however if graphene derivatives are already well established by this time it would be reasonable to expect these to take the approximate form of the informal standards already adopted. William Blythe will of course support the establishment of both informal and formal standards for graphene oxide where possible.

Q: What is the range of applications that your customers are using for the graphene oxide that you produce? And what is it about your product that makes them choose yours rather than others, i.e. price, quality, etc.?

A: William Blythe’s graphene oxide is of interest to a wide variety of applications. While it is not possible to disclose specific applications or customers, we can indicate that the range is broad enough to cover applications from membrane technology to advanced coating technology. The biggest attractions to William Blythe’s graphene oxide are its quality (dispersibility and number of layers) and the scale at which the material can be supplied. As a long established chemical manufacturer William Blythe is already planning to scale up manufacture to tonnage quantities. This, combined with a long history of manufacturing and supplying high quality chemicals gives customers confidence in William Blythe’s ability to support the launch of their technologies.

To support those still in research phases of graphene oxide application development, William Blythe recently launched a webshop, www.go-graphene.com , which sells research quantities of graphene oxide powder and aqueous dispersions. The feedback from this indicates the biggest draws are the competitive pricing and excellent dispersion characteristics.

Q: You are located near the University of Manchester where graphene was first discovered and a major research facility has been created. Has this proximity had an impact on your business? If so, in what way?

A: To an extent, the proximity of William Blythe’s headquarters to the University of Manchester has been of benefit. Members of both the commercial and technical teams at William Blythe have been able to attend meetings and conferences which may have been more difficult if the locations had been less convenient. These events have helped William Blythe to establish some of the understanding and network which are invaluable to the business today. Having said that, William Blythe is sufficiently committed to the development, manufacture and commercialization of graphene oxide that the same activities would have been pursued irrelevant of geography.

Q: Do you foresee William Blythe moving further up stream in the value chain by manufacturing products that employ your graphene oxide? Or will you remain producing dispersions of graphene oxides?

A: William Blythe intends to continue selling both graphene oxide dispersions and powders as well as any other relevant graphene derivatives which make sense in the future. Alongside these it is possible that William Blythe will offer products which fit in further down the supply chain. The volume and caliber of global graphene oxide research is so high at the moment it seems very likely there are other opportunities for William Blythe in the graphene derivative marketplace.

Q: Can you paint a picture of both William Blythe’s graphene business in the next 5 to 10 years and how the market will look more generally in those time periods?

A: Based on William Blythe’s market intelligence, it is anticipated that graphene products will be well established in the supply chain of several industries within the next 5 – 10 years. Naturally this means graphene oxide volume requirements will have risen and potentially the market price will be lowered. William Blythe expects to still be offering highly competitive pricing for high quality graphene oxide, with manufacture moving to a new dedicated graphene oxide plant. Early estimations predict William Blythe’s graphene oxide plant will have an annual production capacity of 10 tonnes.

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Tags:  graphene  graphene oxide  graphene producer  graphene production  specialty chemicals  University of Manchester  William Blythe 

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