Two-dimensional sheets of graphene in the form of ribbons a few tens of nanometers across have unique properties that are highly interesting for use in future electronics. Researchers have now for the first time fully characterised nanoribbons grown in both the two possible configurations on the same wafer with a clear route towards upscaling the production.
Graphene in the form of nanoribbons show so called ballistic transport, which means that the material does not heat up when a current flow through it. This opens up an interesting path towards high speed, low power nanoelectronics. The nanoribbon form may also let graphene behave more like a semiconductor, which is the type of material found in transistors and diodes. The properties of graphene nanoribbons are closely related to the precise structure of the edges of the ribbon. Also, the symmetry of the graphene structure lets the edges take two different configurations, so called zigzag and armchair, depending on the direction of the long respective short edge of the ribbon.
The nanoribbons were grown in two directions along ridges on the substrate. This way both the zigzag- and armchair-edge varieties form and can be studied at the same time. The positions of the atoms in the graphene layer as well as the zig zag edge can be seen from the scanning tunneling microscopy image (Å stands for Ångström, 0.1 nanometers).
The nanoribbons were grown on a template made of silicon carbide under well controlled conditions and thoroughly characterised by a research team from MAX IV Laboratory, Technische Universität Chemnitz, Leibniz Universität Hannover, and Linköping University. The template has ridges running in two different crystallographic directions to let both the armchair and zig-zag varieties of graphene nanoribbons form. The result is a predictable growth of high-quality graphene nanoribbons which have a homogeneity over a millimeter scale and a well-controlled edge structure.
One of the new findings is that the researchers were able to show ballistic transport in the bulk of the nanoribbon. This was possible due to extremely challenging four probe experiments performed at a length scale below 100 nm by the group in Chemnitz, says Alexei Zakharov, one of the authors.
The electrical characterization also shows that the resistance is many times higher in the so called armchair configuration of the ribbon, as opposed to the lower resistance zig-zag form obtained. This hints to a possible band gap opening in the armchair nanoribbons, making them semiconducting. The process used for preparing the template for nanoribbon growth is readily scalable. This means that it would work well for development into the large-scale production of graphene nanoribbons needed to make them a good candidate for a future material in the electronics industry.
So far, we have been looking at nanoribbons which are 30–40 nanometers wide. It’s challenging to make nanoribbons that are 10 nanometers or less, but they would have very interesting electrical properties, and there´s a plan to do that. Then we will also study them at the MAXPEEM beamline, says Zakharov.
The measurements performed at the MAXPEEM beamline was done with a technique not requiring X-rays. The beamline will go into its commissioning phase this spring and will start welcoming users this year.
Graphene holds the potential to deliver a new generation of ultrafast electronic devices. Current silicon technology can achieve clock rates – a measure of how fast devices can switch – of several hundred gigahertz (GHz). Graphene could achieve clock rates up to a thousand times faster, propelling electronics into the terahertz (THz) range. But, until now, graphene’s ability to convert oscillating electromagnetic signals into higher frequency modes has been just a theoretical prediction.
Now researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum DresdenRossendorf (HZDR) and University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE), in collaboration with the director of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) Mischa Bonn and other researchers, have shown that graphene can covert high frequency gigahertz signals into the terahertz range [Hafez et al., Nature (2018)].
“We have been able to provide the first direct proof of frequency multiplication from gigahertz to terahertz in a graphene monolayer and to generate electronic signals in the terahertz range with remarkable efficiency,” explain Michael Gensch of HZDR and Dmitry Turchinovich of UDE.
Using the novel superconducting accelerator TELBE terahertz radiation source at HZDR’s ELBE Center for High-Power Radiation Sources, the researchers bombarded chemical vapor deposition (CVD)-produced graphene with electromagnetic pulses in the frequency range 300–680 GHz. As previous theoretical calculations have predicted, the results show that graphene is able to convert these pulses into signals with three, five, or seven times the initial frequency, reaching the terahertz range.
“We were not only able to demonstrate a long-predicted effect in graphene experimentally for the first time, but also to understand it quantitatively at the same time,” points out Turchinovich.
By doping the graphene, the researchers created a high proportion of free electrons or a so-called Fermi liquid. When an external oscillating field excites these free electrons, rather like a normal liquid, they heat up and share their energy with surrounding electrons. The hot electrons form a vapor-like state, just like an evaporating liquid. When the hot Fermi vapor phase cools, it returns to its liquid form extremely quickly. The transition back and forth between these vapor and liquid phases in graphene induces a corresponding change in its conductivity. This very rapid oscillation in conductivity drives the frequency multiplication effect.
“In theory, [this] should allow clock rates up to a thousand times faster than today’s silicon-based electronics,” say Gensch and Turchinovich.
The conversion efficiency of graphene is at least 7–18 orders of magnitude more efficient than other electronic materials, the researchers point out. Since the effect has been demonstrated with mass-produced CVD graphene, they believe there are no real obstacles to overcome other than the engineering challenge of integrating graphene into circuits.
“Our discovery is groundbreaking,” says Bonn. “We have demonstrated that carbon-based electronics can operate extremely efficiently at ultrafast rates. Ultrafast hybrid components made of graphene and traditional semiconductors are also now conceivable.”
Nathalie Vermeulen, professor in the Brussels Photonics group (B-PHOT) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium, agrees that the work is a major breakthrough.
“The nonlinear-optical physics of graphene is an insufficiently understood field, with experimental results often differing from theoretical predictions,” she says. “These new insights, however, shine new light on the nonlinear-optical behavior of graphene in the terahertz regime.”
The researchers’ experimental findings are clearly supported by corresponding theory, Vermeulen adds, which is very convincing.
“It is not often that major advances in fundamental scientific understanding and practical applications go hand in hand, but I believe it is the case here,” she says. “The demonstration of such efficient high-harmonic terahertz generation at room temperature is very powerful and paves the way for concrete application possibilities.”
The advance could extend the functionality of graphene transistors into high-frequency optoelectronic applications and opens up the possibility of similar behavior in other two-dimensional Dirac materials. Marc Dignam of Queen’s University in Canada is also positive about the technological innovations that the demonstration of monolayer graphene’s nonlinear response to terahertz fields could open up.
“The experiments are performed at room temperature in air and, given the relatively short scattering time, it is evident that harmonic generation will occur for relatively moderate field amplitudes, even in samples that are not particularly pristine,” he points out. “This indicates that such harmonic generation could find its way into future devices, once higher-efficiency guiding structures, such as waveguides, are employed.”
He believes that the key to the success of the work is the low-noise, multi-cycle terahertz source (TELBE) used by the researchers. However, Dignam is less convinced by the team’s theoretical explanation of graphene’s nonlinear response. No doubt these exciting results will spur further microscopic theoretical investigations examining carrier dynamics in graphene in more detail.
When we first spoke to William Blythe back in 2016, we were trying to get a handle on how a 170-year-old specialty chemical company found itself involved as a major graphene producer. Now nearly two years later we got to visit with the company again to see what’s changed from since we last spoke.
For those of you who would like more regular updates on what William Blythe is doing and thinking about when it comes graphene, you can visit their blog. And while there you can order some material on thesame site.
Q: When we spoke to you 18 months ago, William Blythe expected to boost graphene oxide production to the tonnage scale within the next 6-12 months from a lab production level of around 20Kg. Has that production capacity increase happened?
A: William Blythe has definitely seen an increase in demand for graphene oxide since we last spoke. We have been working on scale up of all three of our graphene oxide products, with significant investments made and planned to ensure we always stay ahead of our customers’ needs. As application development has been slower than originally predicted by our customers, we have been able to scale to an interim production capacity of about 200 kg pa.
Q: At the time we spoke last, William Blythe was investing heavily in R&D, focusing on innovation and product development. How has that program developed over the last 18 months?
A: William Blythe has continued building its R&D program and has added several projects since we last spoke. One significant area of investment is in the energy storage sector, with a commitment to spend £1m over the next 3 years in energy storage research. One of these projects is in collaboration with the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester and aims to develop novel anode materials. As a company, we are very committed to developing the materials needed to enable the exciting technologies needed for the future.
Q: Can you also address along these lines how your supply line has developed, i.e. what are the expectations of your customers in terms of batch-to-batch consistency?
A: William Blythe’s customers, across our whole product range, always require the highest level of batch-to-batch consistency. Our products are generally used in demanding applications, where the performance of the product could be hugely affected by small variations in either the chemical or physical properties of the materials we supply. We pride ourselves on offering consistently high-quality products. Both the quality and batch-to-batch consistency of our graphene oxide has been commended by several customers.
Q: Are you still supplying strictly graphene oxide or have you branched out to other graphene products, such as single-crystal monolayer graphene? Why have you chosen one product approach, or the other?
A: As we discussed previously, William Blythe is an inorganic specialty chemicals manufacturer. The chemical exfoliation route we use to synthesize our graphene oxide is very well aligned with our core capabilities, which means we are very well positioned to scale the process effectively and successfully.
Q: We discussed ad hoc industry standards for graphene last time we spoke. Have those become more formalized? And what is the state of graphene standardization across producers?
A: A lot of work is taking place on standardization of graphene materials, however the early standards are more focused on graphene as opposed to graphene oxide. While standards are now being written and the first standards are now published, there is still a need to get the wider market on board as terminology is not always being fully understood and adopted by those in the graphene community.
Q: A year-and-half ago, William Blythe expressed confidence that graphene "will be well established in the supply chain of several industries within the next 5 – 10 years”. Has anything occurred since that then enforces that belief, or perhaps you have become more cautious?
A: Based on the work we know of in this market, the forecast of graphene oxide being well established in some industries by 2026 is very realistic. William Blythe is, as you know, working on increasing production capacity of their graphene oxide to meet customer demands over the coming years. While some applications are commercializing right now, William Blythe is also working on several longer-term projects, we expect these applications to take several years to commercialize, but would still anticipate commercial volume demand in these areas before 2026.
Advanced materials company, First Graphene Limited (ASX: FGR ), officially opened its Commercial Graphene Facility (CGF) at a ceremony with Mr Josh Wilson MP, Federal Member for Fremantle, Australia on Thursday 23, November 2017.
FGR Chairman, Warwick Grigor stated “This Facility represents both the completion of one journey and the commencement of another.” The first part of the journey had commenced in May 2015 when testing of FGR’s material was undertaken at the University of Adelaide. “The tests were done, and they confirmed that not only could graphene be recovered, but of the 50 or more types of graphite that Professor Dusan Losic and his team had tested, the vein graphite (from FGR) gave the best results. ”
First Graphene Board Members L to R; Chris Banasik, Peter Youd, Warwick Grigor and Craig McGuckin
Mr Grigor added, “ There are two very impressive aspects of this wonderfully innovative venture. The first is the very short time frame in which it has been achieved. The second is the very small expenditure that has been involved. Both are a credit to the resourcefulness of the FGR team, led by ourManaging Director, Craig Mc Guckin.Through careful management and sourcing ofequipment for this production facility, management has been able to achieve excellent costs reductions. In many cases these savings have been up to 80%. Rather than accept off-the-shelf quotes from German suppliers, Craig has engaged with manufacturers in China to design and procure equipment at significant savings. That is what good management does for a company.”
MrJoshWilson MP,Federal Member for Fremantle speakingat theofficial opening.
Officiallyopening the facility Mr Wilson remarked“It really is no exaggeration to say that graphene will likely be one of the defining substances and technologies of the 21st century.It is wonderful that the enormous potential of graphene will be explored and enabled through a production facility here in Henderson; in the Fremantle electorate; in the state of Western Australia.It’s exactly the kind of smart, innovative, cutting- edge business that we should be in; that we need to be in.”
Mr Wilson went on to state “I expect that the development of processes and applications that involve graphene– like the development of renewable energy technology; like innovations in medical science– will have a particularly profoundbeneficialimpactincountriesthatfacedevelopment challenges, including a number of countries in our region.Making a contribution to lifting the standard of living and the quality of life the world over through invention and innovation is a great Australian tradition."
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 bethe 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.
There are many different ways in which a graphene supplier can find its way into the marketplace. They might start off as research contractors in the field and discover a process for producing graphene that they believe has a competitive edge.
Another route is to start off in the mining of graphite—the material from which graphene is synthesized—and look into new avenues for exploiting their product.
One company that has followed this path is Australia-based Talga Resources, which mines its high quality graphite deposits in Northern Sweden and processes that ore into graphene that should be suitable for a wide range of potential applications.
Talga recently joined the growing list of The Graphene Council’s corporate partners at which time we took the opportunity to speak to Talga’s Chief Executive Officer, Mark Thompson, to ask him more about the direction of the company and their perspective on the issues facing the growing graphene marketplace.
Q: Do you consider Talga Resources a mining company or an advanced materials company? Why one and not the other?
We see ourselves as an advanced materials company. This is because the majority of our output is functionalized and formulated graphene additive products produced in-house, and utilizes our own 100% owned technology in the product not just raw products.
Has this perception changed over time? Yes, the separation occurred first as we started developing our own processing technology in 2014 and moved to product development in 2016. Mining is now just one of our competitive advantages in owning our complete supply chain. We also have a range of valuable non-carbon mineral assets that can be developed such as cobalt and copper that are also part of the technology metals and clean-tech supply chain.
Q: What kind of graphene are you producing, i.e. how is manufactured and what applications is best suited for?
We electrochemically exfoliate our graphite ore directly into pristine graphene nanoplatelets and a few layers graphene, not graphene oxide.We do in-house functionalization then to create dispersion and product performance, such as conductivity or adhesion. But it is a tunable process so we can produce a range of graphene particle morphologies.
We are using these morphologies successfully in a variety of coatings, batteries, composites and concrete products. Obviously these are large volume current markets where our economics and scale can provide the material solution, as compared to CVD type applications.
Q: Are you functionalizing the graphene in any way?
Yes, we do in-house chemical functionalization.
Q: How far up the value chain to ultimately expect to be moving in the graphene market, i.e. do you foresee you producing actual devices from graphene or will you continue to supply others with graphene to make products?
We can supply raw or basic value-added products directly, but tend away from retailing and towards formulated solutions and product systems, that can be master batches or incorporated into a current product process line.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in the graphene market at large and how does that translate into challenges for your business?
Time. 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. Down the road will be process controls for quality and consistency, and the perennial problem of lack of investor and business knowledge of how graphene really works in an application.
Q: You are an Australian-based company with mining operations in Sweden. Are you producing the graphene in Europe or Australia?
All graphene is produced in Europe, with bulk raw materials made at our test process facility in Rudolstadt, Germany and the UK subsidiary based in Cambridge responsible for product development.
Q: What sort of advantages does having operations on two continents provide you and what are the challenges?
The advantage of having our downstream and upstream processes separated is that they can be more flexible and faster to develop.The challenge is that they are spread out but they will be consolidated more once the first commercial plant is built in Sweden.
Q: What sort of efforts are needed for the graphene market as a whole to improve uptake by the various application markets that are impacted by it, i.e. standardization, dissemination of information, industry advocacy?
I believe graphene producers should do less raw supply and more value-added or advanced prototype products.With current market relevance and pricing it will improve uptake faster than regulation, standards and info. Proof of performance at scales bigger than the lab will lead faster to commercial outcomes than providing raw materials to end users without skills to incorporate it.
Q: How do you see the graphene business evolving over the next five years and what do you aim at making Talga Resources role in that business?
The graphene business will undergo a great deal of failures and M & A activity while commercialization grows in the background with a few key companies. Most will migrate from raw material and basic dispersions to more formulated value-added additives targeting specific products in collaboration with industry. This will be on current market products, not futuristic aspirational products. Talga is already ahead on this path and aims to be a very profitable and global leader in graphene enabled products well within 5 years.
Australia-based Imagine Intelligent Materials (Imagine IM) was launched back in 2014 by a divergent group of scientists, engineers and business leaders that recognized that the time was right for launching a business that made devices from graphene.
A couple of the keys to Imagine IM’s business strategy have been to control their own supply chain and to produce devices that really depended on graphene rather than just lending a marketing tag to a product that was not improved by graphene. To do this, they opened their graphene pilot plant in Geelong, Victoria, Australia in August 2016 with a capacity of up to 10 metric tonnes of graphene per year.
This plant will provide the material that the company will use to create smart materials for detecting stress, temperature and moisture. These smart materials can be offered as “drop-in” solutions for large-scale manufacturing processes.
In a the Q&A provided below, we speak to Imagine IM’s CEO, Chris Gilbey, to find out more about the relationship between their graphene production and device manufacturing and learn about how he sees the nascent graphene industry shaping up over both the short- and long-term.
Q: You are involved in both the manufacturing of graphene—with a production capacity of 10 metric tonnes per year—and using graphene to make smart materials for sensing temperature, stress and moisture. I was wondering if you could breakdown your business with a bit more detail. Are you actually manufacturing devices for sensing, or are you producing master batches for other device manufacturers to make the devices?
Our view is that that graphene is not a product. It’s a means to make products. And you can't make the appropriate graphene unless and until you understand what the end product application is going to be, what the functionalization requirements are, what the plant and product requirements are, etc.We want to deliver solutions...and it happens that graphene turns out to be a highly efficient way to achieve some things as long as you understand what the rules of the supply chain are that you want to work in.
Q: Could you describe the graphene that your plant produces? What is the quality of the graphene and what applications is it suited for?
We make multilayered graphene in the plant we have built. But frankly it’s not about the graphene. It’s about the process of developing a masterbatch material. The quality is the wrong question to ask frankly. Quality with respect to what criteria? If you measure quality in terms of size of nanoplatelets and you make platelets that are 75 microns in size hypothetically and the application requires you to make graphene that that will fit into a 50-micron fiber then you have a mismatch. Quality at this point in the evolution of graphene applications is a largely misunderstood proposition in my view.
I believe that in any industry you always start with the customer need. Quality is less important than functionality and price. Rolls Royce might be a bench mark of quality in the automotive sector or perhaps they may be more correctly a benchmark of luxury. What then is quality? Back in the early days of GM the board of the company would have argued that they made quality autos. But Alfred Sloane and also Peter Drucker would perhaps have argued that they had incomplete information from the field and, as a result, made determinations that were entirely out of sync with reality!
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. At this point in time, our focus is on developing appropriate levels of conductivity in materials—in particular industrial fibers and fabrics. Conductivity is a pre-requisite of delivering sensing.
Q: Is the idea that your 10 metric tonne production capacity will fulfill your own internal needs for master batches or device manufacturing? Or do you intend to sell some of that production to other companies?
No point in selling graphene to anyone. Not enough sustainable margin plus volume to make it into a business. Graphene as a feedstock material is in the early stages of being commoditized. More people will bring production on line, at lower prices, and many of the players will get into a race to the bottom on price. After all, there are already Taiwanese and Chinese companies boasting of >100 tonnes per year capacity. That is not the business we are in.
Q: Do you have a five-year plan on that production capacity? In other words, do you foresee that will be meeting your market needs in five years or will you have to increase capacity? What are your current operating rates?
Short answer is that if our vision was to only need to produce 10 tonnes per year in five years, we would have already died and gone to heaven. 10 tonnes will satisfy one product sku in Australia. We are in discussions currently to set up a plant in the US that will get us started in that market - just started!
The answer is in any event that you have to have distributed manufacturing that is close to your end use application in order to be part of mass manufacturing supply chains. I would anticipate market needs in tonnages greater than 100 tonnes for that one sku in a global scenario. At the end of the day, we want volume, volume, volume.
Q: How did you come to focus on the smart materials market? Was it something inherent in the graphene that you produced that lent itself to this application area? Or did you see an unmet need in the marketplace and then tailored your graphene for this use?
Actually the strategy is to reframe the concept of unmet needs and look at it through an economic lens. The intention is to become a disruptive player in mass manufacturing in the first instance and to be able to make smarter products at lower prices where we can positively impact the economics of products; i.e. there may be a need that is currently met, but if we can make a solution that radically changes the economics we get to win.
Q: As one of the early graphene manufacturers, what do you see lacking in today's graphene supply chain, i.e. lack of industry standards, poor understanding among users of graphene’s capabilities, etc.?
Simple answer: Certification. Industry standards are going be like legal structures for copyright. They will always trail the reality of disruptive technology. Why is Netflix such a powerhouse now? Because they figured that most people would prefer to purchase content legally than steal it, and the studios couldn't get their heads out of their backsides.
However, most manufacturers don't just want for there to be a QA process. They have to have it in order to be able to de-risk their businesses. At the center of our business is the concept and the reality of certification. It’s proprietary, just as the Dolby Labs certification process is, and the WL Gore certification process is. We have just started, funded in part by a federal government grant in Australia, a Graphene Supply Chain Certification and Research Facility at Swinburne University in Melbourne. This is the first of its kind worldwide and will enable us to look at the impact of the almost infinite permutations of changes to materials that take place in the nano-domain.
Q: What sort of movements and developments do you expect to see in the graphene marketplace over the next 5-10 years? Will applications become more narrow and defined or broader and dispersed? Will digital electronics become a reality or an afterthought? Any thoughts on the future?
All I can say to that is that I firmly believe that applications that utilize nanomaterials will be ubiquitous in 10 years. Equally, I think there will be a massive shake out in the marketplace. One company in the UK is rolling up a bunch of the early-stage graphene start-ups that couldn't get product to market. I think that the Gartner hype curve is playing itself out as one would anticipate and there will be a tremendous amount of consolidation over the next few years.
Companies like Samsung will be dominant in electronics applications as they pertain to consumer electronics (along with several Chinese companies). The bottom line for me is that the people who focus on selling graphene will be marginalized over the next ten years. Mass manufacturing is where the money will be. 3D printing will be a small business for quite a while yet. The big chemicals companies and the PE companies that have a focus on chemicals and advanced materials will remain the smartest guys in they room—meaning that BASF, DuPont, and similar will stand on the side lines and will pick off the little guys as they run into trouble. And somewhere in there a Google will emerge that redefines the whole sector...and a bunch of shareholders will make a lot on the way through and a bunch will lose out... And the Chinese may come through as the dominant country in the space... And hopefully we will find ourselves on the positive side of the ledger...
The bottom line is that anyone who thinks that they are going to make money out of graphene from applications that use only small amounts will find that their business models are unsustainable. Mainly because it is in no one's interest (who is a supplier) to sell small quantities of a material except with a giant margin and that doesn't incentivize you to develop scale....
I find this area of human enterprise to be utterly fascinating! And if you read for instance, what Danny Kahneman did, when he was asked to advise the Israeli army and air forces on how to identify future leaders and how his advice ran absolutely 180 degrees contrary to what was in place at the time, and the success of his research and approach, to me that is what is going to be needed conceptually to build an industry!
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.