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Novel Production Technique Offers Start-up New Approach to Markets

Posted By Dexter Johnson, IEEE Spectrum, Thursday, December 20, 2018

California-based NTherma is leveraging a proprietary graphene production method based on the unzipping of multiwalled carbon nanotubes into graphene nanoplatelets or nanoribbons.

The backgrounds of NTherma’s co-founders Cattien V. Nguyen, President & CEO, and Thuy Ngo, VP Business Developments & Investor Relations, cover both the science of graphene as well as its business development. Nguyen’s background contains some of the heavy hitters in nanomaterials research over the last 20 years: IBM Almaden Research Center and Stanford University.

With their manufacturing process offering a high degree of customization, NTherma is targeting applications that exploit this inherent flexibility that other manufacturing techniques can’t so easily deliver on.

As a new Corporate Member of The Graphene Council, we got the opportunity to ask them about how they are approaching the market with their novel manufacturing technique, some of the challenges they are facing and how they plan to overcome them.

 Q: Could you provide us more details about your method for producing graphene? It appears from your website that it may be a bottom-up approach. Is it a CVD-enabled process or direct chemical synthesis? And what kind of graphene does it produce?

Our graphene production method is different from the two current production processes.  We don't produce graphene by CVD of single layer directly on a metal substrate and we don't produce graphene by exfoliating graphite.  Both of these production methods have a number of tradeoffs including cost, purity, and control of structural parameters.

NTherma's unique approach to the production of graphene starts with our patent-pending method of producing carbon nanotubes (CNTs) that have high purity and high degree control of lengths and diameters, and most importantly a much lower production cost.  NTherma's graphene is then derived by the chemical conversion of high quality CNTs. 

Depending on the degree of chemical oxidation process, the produced graphene can be nanoplatelets or nanoribbons, or a combination of the two types.  Our ability to control the CNT length and their high purity together translates to high quality graphene at a much lower cost.  Of particularly importance is the availability of graphene nanoribbons at a large scale with controlled length, high purity, and much lower cost. This will open up a number of applications not currently feasible with commercially available graphene.

Could you let us know what applications you are targeting for your graphene? And can you tell us a bit about how you came to target these applications?

We are currently focusing on the following applications:

1.  Graphene for Oil Additives:  These reduce engine friction, improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions.  We differentiate our graphene as an oil additive in that our graphene forms a stable dispersion in oil with a demonstrated shelf life of greater than 12 months.

2.  Coatings:  There are many coating applications employing graphene and currently we are working with a few partners to integrate our graphene products.  We are also focusing on applications such as touchscreen and display as well as smart windows that other graphene materials have not been able to effectively address. 

3.  Lithium-ion (Li-ion) Batteries:  Preliminary test results are positive.  We're looking for partners to continue developing and testing the process. 

Because of our unique customization ability, we can alter length, layers and uniformity of our graphene per customers' requests.  Realizing that our high quality and consistent materials can unlock previous bottlenecks that other graphene products couldn't resolve, we chose these applications in the order provided as we see these applications and markets having the highest potential and where our technology will have the highest impact.

You are also producing multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs). How do you see this fitting with your graphene production?

We produce MWCNTs for several other applications such as thermal management and also carbon nanotube yarns in development with a commercial partner. 

We also produce our graphene by the chemical conversion of MWNTs.

Is your strategy to remain a graphene and MWCNT producer, or do you see yourself moving further up the value chain to make devices from these materials?

We will focus on scaling up the production of high quality MWCNTs and graphene for the near future.  At the same time, we are developing, or have plans to develop, other applications and markets by ourselves or with partners in order to add more value to our business by strategically positioning our unique technology in a variety of verticals.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for your business in making an impact the commercialization of graphene, i.e. customer education, lack of standards, etc.? And what do you believe can be done to overcome these challenges?

The greatest challenges as a business for us have been our efforts to work with the end users and to understand as well as to educate the potential customers of our unique graphene products for any particular applications and product development processes.  Not all graphene products are the same in their purity, structural parameters such as size and number of layers, and cost.  These facts have to be made known to the end users and have to match with the end user's specific application.

Additionally, we also have to overcome clients' negative experiences with using other producers' inconsistent quality products.  We have to resolve these issues by continuing to work closely with our potential customers and partners by helping them to understand the materials and also optimizing and testing products for specific applications ourselves to provide clients with testing procedures and data (both in a lab environment and in real life).

Tags:  carbon nanotubes  coatings  CVD  Li-ion batteries  lubricants 

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