When people start looking into the commercialization of graphene and graphene-enabled products, one of the first companies they likely come across is the UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries PLC.
This is due—at least in part—to the fact that Haydale has been around for a relatively long time in the graphene business and was one of the first publically traded graphene suppliers, not to mention it being one of the leading companies in the production of graphene from facilities in the UK, USA and the Far East.
Over the years, Haydale has established itself as one of the go-to companies if you wanted graphene to have just the right properties for the device you wanted to develop. The task of functionalizing and dispersing graphene so that it bonds with the resin or polymer matrix in which it is being used has proven trickier than many companies had initially thought, leaving the uninitiated mixing in batches of graphene to their product only to have it make the product worse rather than better. By providing the expertise on how to extract the attractive properties from graphene, Haydale has created the backbone of its business.
In recent years, Haydale has continued to move up the value chain offering its own devices based on its functionalized graphene.
Now Haydale has become one of The Graphene Council’s Corporate Members, and we took that opportunity to talk to the company’s CEO, Ray Gibbs, to ask about the company’s most recent commercial developments as well as see how he sees the market evolving over time. Here is our interview:
Q: Your purchase of Advanced Composite Materials, what did that give you that you didn’t have before and how has it changed your business?
The simple answer us it gave us a presence in the USA, which is a massive market—and gave us a base in the USA with meaningful sales. Also, we have a new nanomaterial that broadened our offering and is now part of our advanced materials Strategic Business Unit. The business itself had 15 plus blue-chip companies as clients. The aim is to cross sell some of our other nanomaterials, such as Graphene and Carbon Nano Tubes, into them. So that is really good news and even more so as we've grown that business with a new $2.6 million contract in April of this year.
Q: You have divided your business into two business units. Resins, Polymers, and Composites, which will concentrate on marketing and selling the newly developed graphene infused carbon fibre pre-impregnated materials (‘pre-preg’). The second unit, Advanced Materials, principally hosts the Group’s silicon carbide (‘SiC’) products and the newly developed graphene inks and pastes for the self-monitoring blood glucose device market. Why was this done and what do you anticipate it will allow you to do?
The key element to making these two strategic business units is focus. These business units are profit and loss driven. Each has a dedicated managing director. One is based in the USA and that is Trevor Rudderham. He’s been on board from the time we bought the company, Advanced Composite Materials, in South Carolina. We also have a new person who has recently started named Keith Broadbent. Keith has come from Ultra Electronics, a large UK defense company. Before that he was running the production for prestigious Princess Yachts and Sunseeker International. So, he knows an awful lot about the composites industry. This really is all about focusing on products and profits by driving sales in this fiscal year.
Q: Huntsman Corporation (‘Huntsman’) for graphene infused Araldite® epoxy resin. What’s happening there at this point? And what is Huntsman expecting to do with the epoxy resin? If it goes through, do you expect this to open up possibilities with similar big chemical companies?
We started our collaboration with Huntsman, a world leader in high end epoxy resins and adhesives, with an exclusivity arrangement about 18 months ago and it's been quite 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. 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 nano materials 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. The overall effect produces a result which we call “functional intensity”.
Yes we've got an exclusive with Huntsman and they've been very prescriptive in telling other people that have approached them that they are working with Haydale and no one else, which is great news and very reassuring But in terms of that, they're honed their focus unashamedly on thermal conductivity. Why? Because thermal conductivity can improve thermoset output by up to 100%. In thick section moldings, such as wind turbine blades, for example, if you can reduce the exotherm reaction (heat) resulting from the “setting process” by 50% and the resin cure time by 50% then you have about a 100-percent increase in output. Not only that but the heat management produces a better-quality product, with less rejection and homogeneous cure. Now that is a pretty fundamental improvement if you look at the way that the composite industry is today and the production constraints that exist.
So Huntsman is all about better quality, and speed of output and being able to work on thicker structures. Of course, there is not only one aspect of the composites industry; you've got electrical conductivity some mechanical issues to address as well. We have seen a 20% increase in mechanical performance of a carbon fibre composite, independently verified. That offers a potential weight saving of one fifth if you keep the same mechanical performance. Some of the other things that came out of that work has meant that we have been very successful improving aircraft composites. For example, in conjunction with Airbus and GKN we have produced an aileron that is 600 percent higher in its electrical conductivity, capable of defeating certain levels of lightning strike. Potentially our work could reduce the parasitic copper in an aircraft which can weigh up to 3 tonnes. Now that is a big thing for the aviation industry wishing to find ways of reducing weight.
Q: Haydale has become known as one of the most established expert companies on how to functionalize graphene in the precise way to make any given product possess the properties that your clients are attempting to achieve. Can you detail how that expertise evolved? Did each new customer provide new challenges and discoveries that led you to understanding how graphene can best be functionalized? Or was it just a matter of applying the same fundamental principles and practices to different clients? Or was it a combination of both?
The key thing is everyone's material—when they provide it—is different. Different shapes, sizes, flakes, thicknesses and it all comes with different levels of activated chemicals on the surface. So, if you've got a material that's come with a lot of oxygen on the surface, you're not going to get electrically conductive material because oxygen is an insulator and that may be inappropriate for certain applications. Hence, knowing and understanding the raw untreated materials is critical. That is something we have done for years now—we call it material fingerprinting—knowing what is on the surface of the material that we receive from a range of customers or suppliers is crucial. It may be that it's used with the functional groups already on the surface and it is compatible with the host material. On the other hand, it may not be suitable “chemically” for the application. And if it's not then we will use our own patented process to change the surface activation using our low temperature patented plasma technology. It's all about knowing and understanding what you've got and applying your own technique and processes to get the desired product improvement.
Q: We’ve seen some of your reported work with graphene inks to create film pressure sensors. Can you give us an update on that work and where it now stands commercially?
Several of these projects remain under non-disclosure agreements so that might be difficult to do. But we have got a number of things in the works with our patented pressure sensor. This derived from using our own proprietary inks by the Welsh Center for Printing and Coating at Swansea University. We have a five-year agreement with them that anything produced using our material we get right of first refusal on the intellectual property (IP). With the graphene loaded piezo resistive ink used to make the pressure sensor we filed a patent on this product. There is a range of things that we're looking at the moment, some in the sporting arena, some in protective elements and others in diagnostic mode—I can't really say much more! Suffice to say, we are in the process of getting applications moving from a commercial aspect and there’s a lot of potential activities to go at from adding pressure sensors on flooring to predict foot fall in the retail industry, to measuring impact on athletes engaged in contact sport for example. There are many industrial applications too offering massive opportunities. Its an exciting area, and all derived from Graphene.
Q: Is the aim of your company to move further up the value chain to producing devices that use your functionalized graphene? If so, what kind of devices are you looking to make and in what application areas? And how do you eventually seeing your company being arranged, i.e. 50 percent production of functionalized graphene for clients and 50 percent of your own production of devices based on your graphene?
I think if you look at the market place what you see is many producers trying to go up the value chain by providing some form of added value material. That material forms what I would call a master batch and it comes in many forms. For example, our conductive ink is form of a master batch because it’s using a resin—as a binder-based system—it’s adding graphene and other materials up to 40% to it to create a conductive screen printable ink. And we've been successful in the Far East in our new operation over there in producing some biomedical sensor inks. That's a part of the production line of a self-diagnostic biomedical device, which is blood glucose monitor.
By applying that same principle to what we just talked about with the Huntsman epoxy in terms of supplying a master batch into a customer so they can use as a concentrated form, a bit like a paste like the Coca-Cola syrup, for example: Customers receives the epoxy concentrate, dilutes it down with the neat base resin to what loading they want to use and you have a controlled process. That's really what I see. I don't envisage Haydale as a business selling anyone graphene flakes or powders because that frankly is a “me-too” commodity in my view. It also means we don't have the same element of control because the customer can take the graphene that you supplied—functionalized as appropriate—and it may or may not work because effectively they may have the wrong mixing and processing tools and protocols. And so we've got no control over that. Working with the customer in partnership is key.
What we have fundamentally is a supply chain set up through our collaboration partners, such as AMG in Germany who have some of our plasma reactors and they're ready to produce industrial quantities of masterbatch.
Q: What remains one of the biggest challenges in the commercialization of graphene-enabled products, i.e. price, quality of product, buyer awareness, etc.?
There is definitely a need for customer awareness of what can be done with nanomaterials. Everyone talks about standardization. A lot of the materials in the graphene space derive from effectively mined organic material, such as graphite. Graphite has been mined and sold for over 150 years but does not have any standards. But then you're dealing with things in the microscale as opposed to the nanoscale, which is one magnitude smaller than micro.
So effectively what you end up with graphite is small changes in supply impurities and the like make little or no impact if you put it into the industrial product like carbon brakes shoes or refactory linings. Once you get to the nano-stage, knowing what you've got is very important as little impurities make a difference and therefore, yes, that is one important aspect of the whole process.
For me, inconsistencies need to be the key message. Standardization is important and it will become very relevant particularly for large organizations seeking consistent volume supply; and I think what we've learned, particularly with the likes of Huntsman, for example, is that the two key questions they want to know is what is your disaster recovery plan for anything you supply us and do you have a more than one production site. Plus, secondly how robust is your supply chain. Those aspects will impact on people going forward.
I do think that the marketplace is getting itself ready. Price is an issue where values for what appears similar products can be markedly different. The trained buyer will always look for the cheaper price but that may be a mistake especially if a material that is twice the price of another only needs a quarter of the loading of the cheaper material. Production is probably in advance of supply. I’ve met many customers who tried nano materials before and said it doesn't work because I think probably they really didn’t understand what the material they had in terms of its functional group, its size, its morphology and the loading levels required. Agglomeration is an often-used complaint. Knowledge is beginning to permeate through the industry, which is good news. There’s lots of companies out there that are willing to take this on because when you change fundamentally products with very small doses of nanomaterials—we’re talking about under half of 1 percent here and sometime less—those massive changes can deliver real value.
Q: What do you think is the most important role for industry groups to play in helping to address those issues?
I think a lot of that is due to understanding of the marketplace. There is still a bit of hype that is still in the industry. Hype is not necessarily always bad as long as it is controlled. Hype helps generate ongoing research and development for all the processes and products. Hype goes astray when it makes exaggerated or wild claims that produce a distrust or misuse of materials in the marketplace. I think that's beginning to be understood. This is where the likes of the Graphene Council and others have a role to play in educating industry generally. We can use any help we can get to do that as we grow the market. There are too many providers chasing a market that is growing but is not large enough to satisfy production capacity today. If that isn’t rectified soon I would expect there to be casualties, and that is already happening.
We meet a number of companies that say, “I’ve tried carbon nanotubes, I’ve tried graphene and it doesn't work.” But in the past the engineer would actually say, “Oh well, I'll put more into this mix because it's bound to improve it.” In our nano world adding less is more. It’s an education process that for me is crucial in the industry we're in today.
I think the Graphene Council has got a role where it's important to inform and in to try to get industry to think about the benefit derived from a consistent, quality supply of material. 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.
A word of caution from someone who spends his life in this area: there are no magic products yet which will revolutionize the way we live. There is great hype surrounding the potential of graphene, but our experience tells us that we should be talking about evolution, not revolution. Our aspirations are great, but we will see transformation over time.
We are already creating transformation, some things at a quicker pace than others. We have combined scientific knowledge, technological innovation and engineering know-how to create products that are significantly better than their predecessors. But we need opinion formers and august bodies to align with the producers and users of nano materials. This is where the likes of the Graphene Council, The National Graphene Institute in Manchester and the EU based Graphene Flagship have major parts to play.
We absolutely believe there is so much more we can do and so much further than we can go, but to do so, we need to work in partnership with other major organizations who are the ‘early adopters’ those prepared to take calculated risks for that is where true economic returns arise – together we must go out into the new territories and explore what is possible. Eyes wide open!
By doing so, we can work together to forge a better future for us all and ultimately, create material change in the world around us. That is the Haydale vision.