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Graphene and Industry: Where is the Disconnect?

Posted By Dexter Johnson, IEEE Spectrum, Monday, September 18, 2017

With buyers uncertain of how to integrate graphene into their products and suppliers often in a race against time to bring a product to market, can the gap be bridged?

The myriad industries that potentially can be impacted by graphene seems at times a bewildering blizzard of possibilities with no clear path on how to access any of them. If graphene does work for applications ranging from photovoltaics to advanced composites, how does it do it and how can those underlying industries extract the benefits from it for their products?

While the major chemical companies struggle with the learning curve of how they can best use graphene to enable their products effectively, graphene suppliers are struggling with the time it takes to walk those buyers through that learning curve.

“The biggest challenge is accelerating the testing of products with large companies to convince the rest of industry to make the change to incorporate a new material,” said Mark Thompson, Chief Executive Officer of Australia-based Tagla Resources, in a Q&A interview with The Graphene Council last month. Thompson added that in addition to the challenge of time, companies like his face the perennial problem of lack of investor and business knowledge of how graphene really works in an application.

Graphene suppliers face this lack of knowledge among their buyers almost universally. While some suppliers are better equipped to last out the long vetting process, the results are not just taxing to the financial stamina of small companies, but are impacting the overall business of graphene.

“We have encountered customers who are either using low-quality graphene, or graphene oxide in some cases, where they are not maximizing the potential of their products,” said Mr. Ho, Chairman of Perfect Right Limited, an Asia-based graphene producer and a subsidiary of Oovao Powers Holdings Limited, in a Q&A with The Graphene Council last June. “Until commercial applications of graphene-enhanced products become widespread and the application of graphene in products is better understood, we will continue to see a fragmented industry where end users are not able to maximize the potential of graphene in their products.”

While much work is done to improve manufacturing processes of graphene—both in terms of the quantity and quality of the product to improve industry uptake—these efforts both may be missing the larger point, which is to make a masterbatch material.

“I believe that in any industry you always start with the customer need. Quality is less important than functionality and price,” said Chris Gilbey, CEO of Australia-based Imagine IM, in a Q&A with The Graphene Council last March.  “What we focus on is developing fit-for-purpose graphene at the lowest possible price, and at a location that meets the supply chain objectives of customers.”

While this, of course, makes logical sense for any supplier, are the real-world experiences of graphene producers lining up their product with buyers’ expectations? UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries Plc has had an exclusive agreement with Huntsman Corporation to develop a graphene infused Araldite® epoxy resin, and according to Haydale’s CEO, Ray Gibbs, in an interview with The Graphene Council last month, it has been a journey. 

“There are no sales yet but it’s been good for us though because we've learnt an awful lot of know-how about how to mix, choosing appropriate dispersions methods, what cure protocol to adopt and how the surface activations of materials affect our materials,” said Gibbs in the interview. “One fundamental thing that it proved to us is that Huntsman did not want any change to the resin once we added in nanomaterials. Generally, adding nanomaterials at low levels will alter the viscosity and downstream processing methods. The minute you do that is when capital expenditure happens and that alerts the finance teams to cash outflows (often not in any budget). The key then is to avoid processing changes and the need for capital spend. The work has produced some fundamental know how on mixing, dispersion and processing.”

All the suppliers spoken to acknowledge that this learning curve needs to be shortened. Certification is cited by most as a way to shortcut through the quality assurance concerns for buyers. It would help the buyers to de-risk their business plans with graphene.

“We spend a lot of time going around the world doing a lot of presentations just trying to grow belief by providing verified data, which is crucial in getting the customer to say, “OK, it's not just been verified by the suppliers it’s been verified by an independent third party.” For me, that’s another area of credibility that needs to be driven by the industry,” said Gibbs.

Certification can be costly and the bodies that have established those certifications remain often in the planning stages. What remains is an educational process. And the responsibility of that education is increasingly being taken up by not just the graphene suppliers, but by industry groups, such as The Graphene Council.

Gibbs added: “I think the Graphene Council has got a role to play where it's important to inform and to get industry to think about the benefit derived from a consistent, quality supply of material.”

Tags:  buyers  certification  masterbatches  suppliers 

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