An interview with the Tom Eldridge, Director of UK-based Fullerex Limited
One of the big stories for graphene going forward is the continued maturation of its supply chain.
Producers of graphene are getting better at understanding not only how to make graphene more cost effectively and with a higher quality, but also are figuring out what kind of graphene to make. The intermediaries—the companies that functionalize graphene and have the knowhow to disperse it in a material matrix—are gaining a more defined role in the supply chain. And finally, the companies who are trying to make something out of graphene, like a tennis racquet, or a supercapacitor, are developing a greater sense of trust in the supply chain.
One company that has been at the forefront of securing that supply chain is UK-based Fullerex Limited. Fullerex helps both ends of the supply chain work out how unmet needs can be satisfied.
In this interview we discuss with the director of Fullerex, Tom Eldridge, the nature of the company’s business and how sees the market developing over the short term.
Q: For people that come to The Graphene Council website, they may be familiar with Fullerex’s pricing index and your Bulk Graphene Pricing Report, but that is only a small part of your business, correct? Could you describe what service Fullerex provides and to whom?
Our main activity as a business includes providing a brokering service for advanced materials and technology, specializing in nanomaterials and nano-intermediates. The company has twenty partners worldwide, which it represents on an agency basis. These firms include producers of various nanomaterials such as novel carbon allotropes for example fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and graphene and also technology solutions providers related to the downstream processing of these materials.
Fullerex supports these strategically placed partners in developing the market for their products and technologies by identifying suitable collaborators and potential early adopters in industry. Typically we help end-users looking to address an unmet need through material innovations. We are able to generate interest in trialing and testing certain nanomaterial types and key enabling technologies by making introductions between the right people.
The annual graphene pricing report forms part of our ancillary services. Fullerex first released the Bulk Graphene Pricing Report in 2014, which has now seen three editions with continual updates each year to the data and analysis contained within the pricing study.
Q: It would seem then that you enable both graphene producers and the end users to better understand what kind of graphene might best work for each potential application, correct?
Our value proposition is to accelerate growth in the market for materials such as graphene. This not only entails understanding the potential applications for graphene and finding end-users that are committed to materials R&D but yes, also having knowledge of the relevant types of graphene for those uses. Producers themselves have differing degrees of expertise between them when it comes to certain application areas.
A core role of Fullerex is to select the technical expertise and materials from our range of partners to best meet the requirements of a given end-user. In addition, a critically important component of pre-screening these opportunities involves understanding the cost implications and whether the use of graphene makes sense for the target market. These technical and commercial considerations combined are at the forefront of the decision making and strategy for our business.
Q: What range of applications for graphene do you offer for this kind of service? Could you provide some examples of the kind of information that it is important for both graphene producers and end users to understand before the material can be effectively applied?
Graphene can be very broadly thought of as supplied in two main material forms: as a powder or as a continuous thin film. Fullerex focuses very much on the former type of product. By adding the graphene powder to various base materials you can improve properties of the base material or add properties that perhaps were not there before, creating multifunctional materials.
The markets for this type of graphene include polymers and composites, coatings, inks, lubricating oils, construction materials etc. For an effective application it is important to establish what performance goals the end-user is looking to achieve and for what purpose, what is the price sensitivity of the target market and what are the potential quantity demands if the new product is successfully developed. Essentially, is there a good business case?
Q: Where is the biggest gap in information? Do the producers not understand how their product should be targeted or are the end users lacking an understanding of the kind of graphene that will work for them?
There are information gaps on both sides. Many potential end-users are simply not aware of all the potential applications for graphene and remain unconvinced until a producer can demonstrate clear advantages with a product that can be easily trialed, that is compatible with existing manufacturing processes and does not require significant investment to implement (by acquiring new technical capabilities in terms of equipment or expertise). To get to this stage takes development work which some end-users may be prepared to fund to generate unique IP but for the most part, it is expected of the producer to build that capability internally or through its close network and partnerships.
Q: Further to the previous information gap question, how do you see the investment community at this point when it comes to graphene? Are you explaining what it is and what it can do for them, or are you discussing investment opportunity points with them?
Our client base is exclusively comprised of commercial enterprises and not members of the investment community. However, as a general comment, one aspect of business strategy for graphene companies which may have an impact in terms of attracting investors is the potential to position the business either in terms of offering a product geared towards a particular market or offering a platform technology with wider scope than just one application.
This comes back to expertise, since to focus on one application area in particular may make it quicker and easier to develop those applications and demonstrate a clear advantage to potential customers but it also narrows the addressable market for the business and therefore may remain interesting only to certain investors looking in that area.
Q: At this point, do you have a breakdown of the graphene market, i.e. how much graphene is being sold worldwide and how that amount breaks down into material types and appropriate applications?
The analysis that we have carried out for our pricing report extends to including some top line figures about the market in terms of the overall market size and segmentation between bulk graphene and graphene thin films.
Q: As this market stands now, what application area do you see as being the most successful today? And where do you see the most promise in the near term of the next five years?
The first commercial applications have arrived in the form of sporting goods ranging from tennis rackets, skis, bicycle tires and sports clothing. The criticism often laid against these examples is that consumer products can be marketed successfully on perceived advantages rather than necessarily offering any demonstrable improvement.
Industrial applications on the other hand are more uncompromising and certainly demand an obvious cost-benefit. As such there are fewer examples of this kind to point towards. Industry uses are starting to emerge however and I see polymer applications being the area, which will bring the majority of uses for graphene over the next few years, in plastics, composites, coatings and 3D printing in particular.
Q: Based on your work, what would be some of the key points of advice you would pass on to producers and end users to start exploiting graphene to its full potential?
Collaboration is key, whether that is between graphene producers and early adopters, enabling technology companies, manufacturing partners, or academia. Applications cannot be developed unless there are all the right elements of the value chain in sync. Moving towards large-scale adoption of the technology requires consistency in supply and this is one of the reasons there is such a strong focus on characterization and standards across the emerging industry. This is an international effort.
Finally, graphene has such unique properties with potential to make a positive impact in economic terms and societal terms across so many areas that it is important to engage as many relevant organizations as possible to build the community of stakeholders.