Emerging technologies such as graphene are being investigated by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in the UK for their potential to improve decommissioning of nuclear sites.
To identify how graphene, an emerging technology, could improve delivery of NDA’s mission.
Review the properties of graphene including the latest developments and areas for potential deployment.
Technology Review :Graphene – a form of carbon consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice with unique chemical and physical properties.
Expected Benefits:Raising awareness of new emerging technology across the NDA Group and supply chain.
The NDA published a report on its findings and research over the period of 2016 - 2018: "Graphene and its use in nuclear decommissioning", produced in collaboration with NSG Environmental, the University of Manchester and the National Physical Laboratory
Graphene’s chemical and physical properties are unique:
- one of the thinnest but also strongest materials
- conducts heat better than all other materials
- conducts electricity
- is optically transparent but so dense that it is impermeable to gases
Developments in graphene-based technology have been rapid in a number of areas, including advanced electronics, water filtration and high-strength materials. NDA identified graphene as an emerging technology that could be useful to improve delivery of its mission.
NDA carried out a technology review to compare the properties and potential uses of graphene against the challenges facing the UK in decommissioning its earliest nuclear sites. The opportunities identified included:
Advanced materials: Graphene-doped materials could help to immobilise nuclear wastes.
Composites incorporating graphene could be used in the construction of stronger buildings or containers for storing nuclear materials.
Cleaning up liquid wastes: Graphene-based materials could absorb or filter radioactive elements, helping to clean up spills or existing radioactive wastes.
Sensors: Graphene in sensors could improve the detection of radiation or monitor for the signs of corrosion in containers.
Batteries: Graphene could produce smaller, longer-lasting batteries that would enable robots to operate for longer in contaminated facilities.
NDA also assessed the potential limitations in graphene’s use to provide a balanced assessment.
The issues identified included:
- environmental concerns
- lack of standardization
- knowledge regarding radiation tolerance
The report was shared with technical experts across the NDA group, published online and summarised in the Nuclear Institute’s journal: Nuclear Futures. As the technology moves on from early-stage research, NDA and its businesses are continuing to monitor developments, such as the recently opened Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC), with the aim of supporting graphene-based technologies and accelerating their uptake within the nuclear decommissioning sector.
NDA is progressing further projects investigating the potential of other emerging technologies. Engagement continues with academia and industry to identify innovations that could improve delivery of the mission.
Talking with SciTech Europa, Professor Novoselov, who was co-awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, for the discovery and isolation of a single atomic layer of carbon for the first time, explores the research into Graphene Flagship and other 2D materials.
At the University of Manchester, UK, in 2004, Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, along with his colleague Professor Sir Andre Geim, discovered and isolated a single atomic layer of carbon for the first time. The pair received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 in recognition of their breakthrough.
On 28 January 2013, the European Commission announced that, out of the six pilot preparatory actions put forwards for the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) Flagships competition, the Graphene Flagship, along with the Human Brain Project, had been selected to receive €1bn in funding over the course of a decade, tasking it with bringing together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society, thereby generating economic growth, new jobs, and new opportunities.
In February, SciTech Europa attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. This event is the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry, and where, for the fourth consecutive year, the Graphene Flagship hosted its Graphene Pavilion – this year showcasing over 20 different graphene-based working prototypes and devices that will transform future telecommunications.
At the pavilion, SEQ met with Professor Novoselov to discuss research into graphene and other two dimensional materials, as well as how the Flagship is working to bolster both fundamental research and applications stemming from these advanced materials.
Q. What do you think have been the biggest, and latest, developments in graphene (and other 2D materials) research?
There has been a lot of progress in recent years and, indeed, we are no longer talking only about graphene, but also about many other two dimensional materials as well.
First of all – new applications of graphene is one example of recent developments – we see new applications emerging on an almost monthly basis. Second, there is still a lot of progress being made in fundamental research on graphene and 2D materials. And those fundamental results are being implemented in applications.
In terms of other new 2D materials, there is a lot of activity on ferromagnetic materials.
Q. What potential is there now to move graphene forwards, and how would you describe the role of the Flagship in this?
The basic technology is in place, and so what is important now is for entrepreneurs and SMEs to convert those developments into commercial applications, and, indeed, we need to help them to do so.
The Flagship, of course, has now reached the half way stage, and we therefore need to carefully balance the amount of effort we place on applications with the effort we place on the development of fundamental science, which remains crucial.
Nevertheless, we also need to ensure we are helping companies and industry to introduce this material into real products, and that is actually much more difficult, not least because of the fact that this has not been done at this scale before, and so nobody knows how to do it yet.
Q. Are you able to utilise EU instruments to help fund commercialisation activities?
It is not necessarily funding that is a problem in in Europe; the challenge comes more in the form of bringing together scientists, entrepreneurs, and funders in the same room, and it is still not clear how to achieve that. There is thus the argument that we need to work more closely with entrepreneurs and we need to grow those entrepreneurs who are working on advanced materials because this is a much more challenging area than, say, ‘.com’ applications.
Q. What do you feel are the biggest barriers here?
It is perhaps the mentality that exists around risk taking that needs to change. Bringing together entrepreneurs, scientists, the technology and the money around the same table is a challenge and, as I have mentioned, it needs to be understood that bringing new materials, especially nanomaterials, to market is much more challenging than it is to bring, for example, new software to consumers. And, of course, the level of required investment is also much larger. Whether we have enough people in Europe who are ready to take this risk is a good question.
Q. Would you say that Europe is too risk averse when it comes to this type of investment in comparison to, for instance, the USA?
Perhaps; there is certainly a sense that Europe needs to work much harder than the USA or South-East Asia. And the reason for that is not only a lack of those willing to take enhanced risks, but also the level and mobility of the available money and, indeed, how soon financiers expect a return on their investment.
Q. Could 2D materials research spark a ‘revolution’ in real world applications?
I am not sure that we will see a ‘revolution’; the growth in real world applications utilising graphene is, and will continue to be, a gradual introduction. That is not to say, however, that this gradual process won’t speed up a little over time. And it is great to see that, when it comes to graphene, this introduction, although gradual, is already happening much faster than with any other advanced material that we have seen before. The purpose of the Flagship is to help speed up this process.
The Flagship is now investing in research into the safety of graphene. How important is that?
This is an example of the sort of issue where the Flagship should take the initiative, because it is not only about graphene; we need to realise that many new nanomaterials are going to play an increasing role in the everyday lives of people, and we need to be prepared for that.
There are a great many regulations which have to be passed when bringing such advanced materials to market, including health and safety and toxicology regulations, and very often these are not very well defined because, quite simply, we have never been in this situation before. It can also be quite expensive to run the necessary projects to investigate things like toxicology, and so it is important for projects like the Flagship to take the initiative and help businesses to overcome these barriers.
Q. Where are your own research interests going to lie, moving forwards?
I do indeed conduct my own research, and within that graphene is not the largest part. I go beyond graphene and work on many other 2D materials and heterostructures, but it is nevertheless exciting to remember that it was graphene that made all the other materials possible as we work on those heterostructures towards new discoveries.
Posted By Terrance Barkan,
Monday, April 1, 2019
Updated: Sunday, March 31, 2019
The Graphene Council is pleased to announce that Versarien plc is the first graphene company in the world to successfully complete the Verified Graphene Producer™ program, an independent, third party verification system that involves a physical inspection of the production facilities, a review of the entire production process, a random sample of product material and rigorous characterization and testing by a first class, international materials laboratory.
The Verified Graphene Producer™program is an important step to bring transparency and clarity to a rapidly changing and opaque market for graphene materials, providing graphene customers with a level of confidence that has not existed before.
“We are pleased to have worked with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK, regarded as one of the absolute top facilities for metrology and graphene characterization in the world.
They have provided outstanding analytical expertise for the materials testing portion of the program including Raman Spectroscopy, XPS, AFM and SEM testing services.” stated Terrance Barkan CAE, Executive Director of The Graphene Council.
Andrew Pollard, Science Area Leader of the Surface Technology Group, National Physical Laboratory, said: “In order to develop real-world products that can benefit from the ‘wonder material’, graphene, we first need to fully understand its properties, reliably and reproducibly.
“Whilst international measurement standards are currently being developed, it is critical that material characterisation is performed to the highest possible level.
As the UK’s National Measurement Institute (NMI) with a focus on developing the metrology of graphene and related 2D materials, we aim to be an independent third party in the testing of graphene material for companies and associations around the world, such as The Graphene Council.”
Neill Ricketts, CEO of Versarien said: “We are delighted that Versarien is the first graphene producer in the world to successfully complete the Graphene Council’s Verified Graphene Producer™programme.”
“This is a huge validation of our technology and will enable our partners and potential customers to have confidence that the graphene we produce meets globally accepted standards.”
“There are many companies that claim to be graphene producers, but to enjoy the benefits that this material can deliver requires high quality, consistent product to be supplied. The Verified Producer programme is designed to verify that our production facilities, processes and tested material meet the stringent requirements laid down by The Graphene Council.”
“I am proud that Versarien has been independently acclaimed as a Verified Graphene Producer™ and look forward to making further progress with our collaboration partners and numerous other parties that we are in discussions with.”
James Baker CEng FIET, the CEO of Graphene@Manchester (which includes coordinating the efforts of the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre [GEIC]) stated: “We applaud The Graphene Council for promoting independent third party verification for graphene producers that is supported by world class metrology and characterization services."
"This is an important contribution to the commercialization of graphene as an industrial material and are proud to have The Graphene Council as an Affiliate Member of the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) here in Manchester ”.
Successful commercialization of graphene materials requires not only the ability to produce graphene to a declared specification but to be able to do so at a commercial scale.
It is nearly impossible for a graphene customer to verify the type of material they are receiving without going through an expensive and time consuming process of having sample materials fully characterized by a laboratory that has the equipment and expertise to test graphene.
The Verified Graphene Producer™program developed by The Graphene Councilprovides a level of independent inspection and verification that is not available anywhere else.
If you would like more information about the Verified Graphene Producer™program or about other services and benefits provided by The Graphene Council, please contact;
Graphene@Manchester at The University of Manchester is an on-going programme of activity to ensure that Manchester and the UK play a leading international role in developing the revolutionary potential of graphene.
Graphene@Manchester is creating a critical mass of graphene and 2D materials expertise made up of scientists, manufacturers, engineers, innovators, investors and industrialists to build a thriving knowledge-based economy.
At the heart the vision is the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), multi-million pound facilities with a commitment fostering strong industry-academic collaborations.
The Graphene Council is a proud founding Affiliate Member of the GEIC, providing access to a word class facility and the graphene experts at the University of Manchester.
Graphene@Manchester is home to an unrivalled breadth of expertise across 30 academic groups. This expertise gives us the ability to take graphene applications from basic research to finished product.
Graphene is a disruptive technology; one that could open up new markets and even replace existing technologies or materials. From transport, medicine, electronics, energy, and water filtration, the range of industries where graphene research is making an impact is substantial.
Graphene has the potential to create the next-generation of electronics currently limited to science fiction. Our facilities provide dedicated equipment to develop and produce inks and formulations for printed and flexible electronics, wearables and coatings.
The two teams based at The University of Manchester are seeking breakthroughs by using graphene in the treatment of brain cancer and to radically improve battery performance.
The Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise Award, in association with Nobel Laureate Sir Andre Geim, is awarded each year to help the implementation of commercially-viable business proposals from students, post-doctoral researchers and recent graduates of The University of Manchester based on developing the commercial prospects of graphene and related 2D materials.
The first prize of £50,000 was awarded to Honeycomb Biotechnology and its founders; Christopher Bullock, a Biomedical Engineer in the School of Health Sciences who is due to complete his PhD on developing novel graphene biomaterials this autumn, and Richard Fu, a NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow and Specialty Registrar in Neurosurgery based at the Manchester Centre for Clinical Neurosciences.
The team are seeking to develop a surgically implanted device using graphene electrodes to deliver targeted electrotherapy for the treatment of Glioblastoma Multiforme- a form of brain cancer. They hope that this technology can work in conjunction with other treatment modalities to one day turn fatal adult brain cancer into a manageable chronic condition.
Richard Fu said: “Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) remains a tragic and deadly disease. This award provides us with the opportunity and funding to further develop what is currently an exploratory treatment idea that could one day make a meaningful difference to the lives of patients”.
Christopher Bullock added: “We are very grateful to Eli and Britt Harari for their generosity and for the support of the University, which has enabled us to try and turn our ideas into something that makes a real difference”.
"Our commitment to the support of student entrepreneurship across the University has never been stronger and is a vital part of our approach to the commercialisation of research. The support provided by Eli Harari over the last four years has enabled new and exciting new ventures to be developed. It gives our winners the early-stage funding that is so vital to creating a significant business, while also contributing to health and social benefit. With support from our world-leading graphene research facilities I am sure that they are on the path to success!"
Professor Luke Georghiou, Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor
The runner-up, receiving £20,000, was Advanced Graphene Structures (AGS), founded by Richard Fields, Alex Bento and Edurne Redondo. Richard has a PhD in Materials Science and Edurne has a PhD in Chemistry, they are both currently research associates at the University; Alex is currently working as a freelance aerospace engineer.
Richard Fields said: “Many industries are interested in benefiting from the properties of graphene, but they are hindered by a lack of new processing tools and techniques, ones which could more effectively capture these beneficial properties. We intend to develop new tools and techniques which can constructively implement graphene (alongside other 2D/nanomaterials) into advanced energy storage devices and composite materials”.
The technology aims to radically improve the performance of composite materials and batteries, this will be achieved by providing control over the structure and orientation of 2D/nanomaterials used within them. An added benefit of the solution is rapid deployment; the team have identified a real technological opportunity, which can be readily added to existing manufacturing processes.
Graphene is the world’s first two-dimensional material, one million times thinner than a human hair, flexible, transparent and more conductive that copper.
No other material has the same breadth of superlatives that graphene boasts, making it an ideal material for countless applications.
The quality of the business proposals presented in this year’s finals was exceptionally high and Professor Luke Georghiou, Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester and one of the judges for this year’s competition said: “Our commitment to the support of student entrepreneurship across the University has never been stronger and is a vital part of our approach to the commercialisation of research. The support provided by Eli Harari over the last four years has enabled new and exciting new ventures to be developed. It gives our winners the early-stage funding that is so vital to creating a significant business, while also contributing to health and social benefit. With support from our world-leading graphene research facilities I am sure that they are on the path to success!”
The award is co-funded by the North American Foundation for The University of Manchester through the support of one of the University’s former physics students Dr Eli Harari (founder of global flash-memory giant, SanDisk) and his wife Britt. It recognises the role that high-level, flexible early-stage financial support can play in the successful development of a business targeting the full commercialisation of a product or technology related to research in graphene and 2D materials.
Advanced materials is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons - examples of pioneering discoveries, interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-sector partnerships that are tackling some of the biggest questions facing the planet. #ResearchBeacons
Of the thousands of research papers that have been published on graphene, and the similarly high number of graphene-related patents that have been filed, a small percentage will ever see the light of day from a commercialization or application perspective.
To address this “Valley of Death”—as some have termed the gap between the lab and the fab—there exists one of the few mechanisms established to help move research from the laboratory to commercial production: the University Technology Transfer Office (TTO). These institutions are charged with identifying commercially viable intellectual property (IP) held by their university and then connecting with qualified and interested commercial and financial partners.
While on the best of days developing lab projects into commercially viable IP is a challenge, for an emerging technology like graphene there is another layer of difficulty that needs to be addressed.
“Early on the mention of the material’s performance, attributes and excitement around it led to unrealistic expectations as to its state of development. Many expected to be able to invest in or adopt a technology which was close to market use, when in fact there is more science development and engineering required to address most opportunities, certainly the more sophisticated markets.Remember that it took aluminium and carbon fibre some 30 years to go from discovery to serious use.”explainedClive Rowland, CEO of the University of Manchester’s innovation company, UMI3.
One of the biggest challenges faced by university TTOs is to accurately forecast or identify commercially viable opportunities. When a material is completely new, as with graphene, it becomes exponentially harder to get that prediction model to be accurate.
“Initially, many thought that graphene would be used in electronic applications (the new silicon) but there was – at that time - little appreciation that there is no band gap in graphene, meaning that there are few breakthrough uses until that issue has been solved,” explained Rowland. “The hype around the electronic applications and hundreds if not thousands of patents filed for this area distorted the picture.Most likely it will be other 2D materials, or a combination of graphene with them, that will be better suited to electronic (and many other) applications.”
The issues faced by university TTOs are not just about getting a handle on predicting the real application potential for a technology, but also working with outside commercial and financial partners. When it comes to graphene, this problem is magnified due to a general lack of understanding about the quality issues surrounding graphene.
Rowland explains that this lack of understanding has led to some unrealistic expectations about graphene from those outside the research community. “It has been difficult to manage these expectations at the University TTO level since the external community (investors and industry) are really looking for and expecting us to have a set of products to license, or around which we can establish start-ups.”
Far from licensing or the establishment of start-ups, the reality is that the invention disclosures are very early-stage where risk capital and/or industrial collaborations are needed to develop these technologies to some stage higher up the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, according to Rowland.
Rowland believes that it is still too early to measure the tangible outcomes that the University of Manchester has achieved in the commercialization of graphene. However, he notes that Manchester had set up a graphene characterization and consulting company early in the process called 2D Tech, which was acquired by a British engineering company Versarien that has since developed it further into a product development company.
In addition, UMI3 has established a joint IP development program with a British engineering firm (Morgan Advanced Materials) to scale up its graphene production method, which involves the exfoliation of graphite. They have also set up a company (Atomic Mechanics) to make and sell graphene pressure sensor products. After having brought this work to the stage of one or two demonstrators, Atomic Mechanics is now attracting the interest of seed investors, according to Rowland.
A potential mistake that other university TTOs might be making is to apply the usual tech transfer techniques to it and expect it to work.
“Graphene cannot really go the normal route from lab to market without special attention given to it,” said Rowland. “We treat it more like a portfolio approach and aim to use our Background IP as a basis to attract industrial collaborators to work with us in developing applications in our specialist centers.” These centers are the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre.
Even with the huge strides Manchester has made in establishing an infrastructure to support the commercialization of graphene, Rowland concedes that they cannot nor should do it alone. It’s part of a bigger picture to create a Manchester cluster of graphene active companies located close to the campus. Also they need to engage entrepreneurs who have been successful in marketing engineered products and building companies to collaborate in developing those inventions that have breakthrough potential—so-called platform technologies that sustain a successful independent business.
“To achieve this we have set up a dedicated team of people who work alongside the TTO (essentially part of the TTO) to accelerate these more challenging areas of science and engineering,” said Rowland. “This accelerator is called Graphene Enabled. It’s another important aspect of a grander strategic approach. The Graphene Enabled approach needs to sit alongside our industrial collaboration activity, so that we bring the whole community that we need to commercialize graphene onto our campus (investors, entrepreneurs, business people, industrialists) and in an appropriate environment, so that it does not conflict with or divert from the first-class basic science research going on in our academic schools.”
Another organization that plays an important role in the commercialization ecosystem is The Graphene Council, a neutral platform that welcomes all dedicated stakeholders from academia and the commercial sector according to Terrance Barkan CAE, Executive Director of The Graphene Council.
“The mission of The Graphene Council is to act as a catalyst for the sustainable commercialization of graphene. We achieve this in part by augmenting and supporting the efforts of University Technology Transfer Offices, connecting them with potential partners while also providing market intelligence to help better understand where commercial opportunities exist,” said Barkan.
“We spend a good part of our time helping to educate the end-user markets that will be the future customers for graphene enabled products and solutions. Because we have the largest community in the world of professionals, researchers, application developers and end users that have an interest in graphene, we are an ideal partner and connector.”
Needless to say, an entirely new class of photodetectors—based on proton transport as opposed to all current photodetectors today that are based on electron transport—is a pretty significant development. You add on to this the fact that the photodetectors made from graphene are 100,000 times more responsive than silicon and you have the basis of a transformative technology.
What regular readers of The Graphene Council may have missed earlier this month in an Executive Q&A with Jeffrey Draa, CEO of Grolltex, was that we got some indications in that interview that the technology being developed in Geim’s lab is ramping up for commercial applications.
Draa said in the interview: “…we’re also starting to get some inquiries for an application that actually Dr. Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, who, of course, was the discoverer of graphene was very passionate about. This is one of the very first applications that he thought futuristically would really make the world a better place, and that third application that we're starting to see on the horizon is graphene as a proton exchange membrane in a hydrogen fuel cell.”
Draa in this interview points to the initial applications that were discussed almost four years ago for this graphene-based proton exchange membrane. At the time, Geim had discovered that contrary to the prevailing wisdom that graphene was impermeable to all gas and liquids it could, in fact, allow protons to pass through. This made scientists immediately conjure up the proton exchange membranes that are central to the functioning of fuel cells.
While there’s no reason to think that these graphene membranes won’t someday make for excellent proton exchange membranes for fuel cells, the problem is that fuel cells are not exactly ubiquitous. However, photodetectors certainly are ubiquitous, making for a much larger potential market for these graphene membranes.
Of course, it’s a pretty big step to make these graphene membranes go from being used for fuel cells to being used in photodetectors. So how did this application switch occur?
The University of Manchester scientists started with monolayer graphene decorated with platinum (Pt) nanoparticles. In operation, photons (light) strike the membrane and excite the electrons in the graphene around the Pt nanoparticles. This makes the electrons in the graphene become highly reactive to protons. This, in turn, induces the electrons to recombine with protons to form hydrogen molecules at the Pt nanoparticles. This process mimics the way in silicon-based photodetectors operate based on electron-hole recombination.
While there are similarities between the semiconductor approach to electron-hole recombination, the photon-proton effect used in this graphene membrane would represent a big departure from the previous approach and nobody is quite sure what the implications might be.
However, it is clear that this graphene membrane that Grolltex is working on with the scientists at Manchester may have a new set of applications that extends far beyond just typical membrane-based technologies.
In that interview, Yu said the first approach of the three is to use graphene in the creation of functional coatings. The second approach involves producing lamellar structures with nano-channels, which requires using fine layers of alternating types of materials. G2O Water is doing a bit of both of these approaches by creating a functional coating that can be applied to today’s polymer water membranes, and also creating scalable fabrication of lamellar structures of graphene oxide.
All of these approaches to using graphene in water applications is taking on increased interest after news came out last week that researchers from the University of Manchester have developed a graphene oxide membrane that in addition to filtering out small particles has small enough pores that it can filter out salt ions. This approach, which was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, falls into the approach taken by the MIT researchers.
The Manchester researchers have managed to overcome a key problem in this approach when the membranes swell up after being immersed in water for some time, allowing smaller particles to continue to pass through.
“Realization of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology,” said Rahul Nair, a professor at the University of Manchester and one of the co-authors of the research, in a press release. “This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”
Of course, the imprimatur of the University of Manchester on anything to do with graphene suddenly makes this latest research noteworthy. However, the final arbiter on whether this graphene approach or the others like it for either desalinating or purifying water remains squarely on the industry.
While the mainstream press--like the BBC--has seemingly ignored all other efforts for using graphene in the desalination or purification of water--setting up the Manchester research as a kind of first in the field--the trade press has been a bit more circumspect.
The publication Water & Wastewater International (WWi) has a pretty thorough assessment of the latest Manchester research and how it stacks up to other efforts for desalinating water using graphene.
While WWi remains pretty sanguine about the general prospects of using graphene for water desalination, they get some expert opinions that characterizes this latest research as something of a long shot at this point.
Graeme Pearce, principal at Membrane Consultancy Associates (MCA) told WWi in an interview: "The development at the University of Manchester aims to produce a membrane with a highly controlled character, free from defects. Given the materials used, longevity should also be good. The challenge will be whether the membrane can be effectively used with the current form factor (the spiral wound element mounted in series in long pressure vessels) and using current process design concepts.
"Alternatively, the membrane might be better exploited by a completely different approach to process design, which would be high risk and slow to introduce, but might have a much greater long term impact if the improved membrane can be exploited more efficiently."
He added: "The key issue would be to demonstrate both performance and longevity in the first instance and then establish what features of the current approach to desalination plants limit the benefits of a new membrane and what can be done to remove these impediments."
It turns out that the technology of G2O Water technologies might have the inside track at this point, according to Pearce.
He added: "This preserves the form factor and should be more easily adopted by the industry. The development is still early stage and the longevity of the coating has yet to be established, but the approach appears to be promising and initial results on performance enhancement have been encouraging. This is more likely to allow a radical optimization of existing practice rather than the potentially more revolutionary but higher risk development from Manchester."
From properties as a superconductor to unexpected membrane separation abilities, graphene continues to surprise
When graphene is discovered to have new and sometimes unexpected properties, it quickly adds on potential new applications that it could be used for.
This year we have seen that it actually does become a superconductor, opening up potential as material used in quantum computers. We have also seen graphene surprise even the Nobel Laureate who discovered it by it serving as a membrane for filtering out nuclear waste at nuclear power plants.
Graphene’s Potential as a Superconductor Just Got a Clearer
Illustration: Takashi Takahashi/Tohoku University
Graphene’s property as a conductor is unrivalled. The ballistic transport of graphene—the speed at which electrons pass through a material at room temperature—is so fast that it has surpassed what scientists believed were its theoretical limits. It is at the point now where electrons seem to be behaving like photons in graphene. Whenever this amazing property of graphene as a conductor is mentioned, people wonder if it might make for a good superconductor.
While there has been some research that has suggested that graphene could be made into a superconductor—a material with zero resistance to the flow of electricity—we now have more conclusive proof that it is indeed the case.
In joint research out of Tohoku University and the University of Tokyo in Japan, scientists there have developed a new method for getting graphene to behave as a superconductor, and in so doing have eliminated the chance that what they were observing was the transformation of graphene into a semiconductor.
Takashi Takahashi, a professor at Tohoku University and leader of the research, explained that they took a number of different approaches to ensure that what they were witnessing was graphene becoming a superconductor. In research published in the journal ACS Nano, the researchers were first extremely meticulous about how they fabricated the graphene.
They started with high-quality graphene on a silicon carbide crystal, and controlled the number of graphene sheets. This gave them a well-characterized bilayer graphene, into which they stuffed calcium atoms. So precise was the process hat they could actually ascribe a chemical formula to their sample: C6CaC6. This was an important achievement because having a precise count for the number of Li or Ca atoms determines the amount of donated electrons into graphene, which controls the occurrence of superconductivity.
The researchers’ measurements confirmed that superconductivity did occur with the graphene. Electrical resistivity dropped rapidly at around 4 K (-269 °C), indicative of an emergence of superconductivity. The measurements further indicated that the bilayer graphene did not create the superconductivity, nor did lithium-intercalated bilayer graphene exhibit superconductivity. This meant that the drop in resistance was due to the electron transfer from the calcium atoms to the graphene sheets.
Now that graphene has been made to perform as a superconductor with a clear zero electrical resistivity, it becomes possible to start considering applying graphene into the making of a quantum computer that would use this superconducting graphene as the basis for an integrated circuit.
Unfortunately, like most superconducting materials, the temperature at which graphene reaches superconductivity is too low to be practical. Raising that temperature will be the next step in the research.
Graphene Nanoribbons Increase Their Potential
Image: Patrick Han
Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) appear to be among the best options for electronics applications because of the each with which it’s possible to engineer a band gap into them. Narrow ones are semiconductors, while wider ones act as conductors. Pretty simple.
With improved methods being developed for manufacturing GNRs that are both compatible with current semiconductor manufacturing methods and can be scaled up, the future would appear bright. But there’s not a lot of knowledge of what happens when you start trying to manipulate GNRs into actual electronic devices.
Now a team of researchers at Tohoku University's Advanced Institute of Materials Research (AIMR) in Japan is investigating what happens when you interconnect GNRs end to end using molecular assembly to form elbow structures, which are essentially interconnection points. The researchers believe that this development provides the key to unlocking GNRs’ potential in high-performance and low-power-consumption electronics.
“Current molecular assemblies either produce straight GNRs (i.e., without identifiable interconnection points), or randomly interconnected GNRs,” said Dr. Patrick Han, the project leader, in press release. “These growth modes have too many intrinsic unknowns for determining whether electrons travel across graphene interconnection points smoothly,” said Han, who added that, “The key is to design a molecular assembly that produces GNRs that are systematically interconnected with clearly distinguishable interconnection points.”
In research published in the journal ACS Nano, the AIMR researchers demonstrated that both the electron and thermal conductivities of two interconnected GNRs should be the same as that of the ends of a single GNR.
“The major finding of this work is that interconnected GNRs do not show electronic disruption (e.g., electron localization that increases resistance at the interconnection points),” said Han in the press release. “The electronically smooth interconnection demonstrates that GNR properties (including tailored band gaps, or even spin-aligned zigzag edges) can be connected to other graphene structures. These results show that finding a way to connect defect-free GNRs to desired electrodes may be the key strategy toward achieving high-performance, low-power-consumption electronics.”
Graphene Has Special Properties for Cleaning Up Nuclear Waste
Image: The University of Manchester
The merits of graphene as a separation membrane medium have long been extolled. The properties that distinguish graphene for these applications are its large surface area, the variability of its pore size and its adhesion properties.
These attractive properties have not gone unnoticed by Andre Geim, who, along with Konstantin Novoselov, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery and study of graphene. Geim has dedicated a significant amount of his research efforts since then to the use of graphene as a filtering medium in various separation technologies.
Now Geim and his colleagues at the University of Manchester have found that graphene filters are effective at cleaning up the nuclear waste produced at nuclear power plants. This application could make one of the most costly and complicated aspects of nuclear power generation ten times less energy intensive and therefore much more cost effective.
In research published in the journal Science, Geim and his colleagues at Manchester experimented to see if the nuclei of deuterium—deuterons—could pass through the two-dimensional (2-D) materials graphene and boron nitride. The existing theories seemed to suggest that the deuterons would pass through easily. But to the surprise of the researchers, not only did the 2-D membranes sieve out the deuterons, but the separation was also accomplished with a high degree of efficiency.
“This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles, all at room temperature,” said Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester and first author of the paper, in a press release. “Now that we showed that it is a fully scalable technology, we hope it will quickly find its way to real applications.”
Irina Grigorieva, another member of the research team, added: “It is a really simple set up. We hope to see applications of these filters not only in analytical and chemical tracing technologies but also in helping to clean nuclear waste from radioactive tritium.”
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 ofone 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.