Composites for the masses

Posted on 24 Mar 2014 by The Manufacturer

New technology from Moorfield, developed with help from the Technology Strategy Board is democratising the manufacture of composite films.

Via nanoKTN, the UK Knowledge Transfer Network for nanotechnology, the Technology Strategy Board delivered around £90,000 to Cheshire-based Moorfield to support proof of concept for its nanoCVD equipment – money which was also used to host awareness raising workshops which educated potential users about the benefits of its technology.

Moorfield’s nanoCVD promises to make commercial production of composites accessible to small and medium sized manufacturers and research facilities. Until now, if a company started to develop a product using graphene they would either have had to buy samples of material produced by a third party, set out to construct their own production system, or look to purchase a commercially available unit according to Moorfield’s product manager Jon Edgeworth.

These options are timely in cost or money however. “Moorfield’s new technology, which uses a production method called chemical vapour deposition, allows users to gain in house graphene production capability quickly and affordably,” says Mr Edgeworth. Furthermore, running costs for the equipment are low and its cycle time for the production of graphene films is around 30 minutes compared to the 8 hours many machines need.

Defining the efficiency of the machine more tangibly, Edgeworth shares “We can have a system out of the box, installed and producing graphene within one day. In addition, innovative features of our system allow for minimal running costs due to efficient usage of resources such as energy or high-purity process gases. We recently calculated that one cylinder of methane would be enough to carry out 20,000 process runs using the Moorfield system!”

Moorfield’s nanoCVD is ideally suited to the production of high-quality continuous graphene films that are particularly promising for applications in high-performance electronics, sensors and as transparent conductive layers – for touchscreens and photovoltaics for example.

Commenting on where the strongest interest in Moorfield’s nanoCVD has come from so far, Edgeworth says: “So far, our system has been particularly appealing to academic groups working in graphene R&D. But we have also seen interest from industrial teams who want a ready, flexible supply of CVD graphene for product development. We expect this industrial interest to grow as graphene research moves further towards application.”

While graphene was hailed as a “miracle material” when it was discovered in 2004 commercial uptake has not been rapid as some would have hoped in the UK. Last year, research was released which showed the UK, the birthplace of graphene had filed just over 50 patents for its commercial use since its discovery. Meanwhile, scientists and industrialist in China had filed 2,200 patents on the material, in the US more than 1,700 patents had been registered and in South Korea had almost 1,200.

Government investment in the commercial development of graphene has increased under the current government – not least with the recent investment boost announced in the 2014 Budget – but is it enough to make Britain a leading light in this field?

Paul Mason, head of emerging technologies, Technology Strategy Board
Paul Mason, Head of Emerging Technologies, Technology Strategy Board

Paul Mason, head of emerging technologies at the Technology Strategy Board comments “The UK science base in graphene has identified a wide range of potential applications for the material, and our approach now is to help UK companies evaluate the potential of the new material in their specific applications.”

Mr Mason continues, “Business will know more about the precise performance requirements and price points in their markets, and we are helping them to test the feasibility of using graphene as a material in them.”

TSB’s go to method for delivering this assistance is through competition funding and the organization is still open for applications toe the ‘Realising the graphene revolution’ competition.

Moorfield’s technology was a prime target for TSB funding because of its promise to spread the benefits of graphene and encourage more experimentation with its commercial applications.

While the CVD process Moorfield uses is well established as a method for graphene  production the way in which it has adapted the process to reduce cycle time and increase repeatability makes it novel and highly valuable to UK’s ambition to be a leader in the exploitation of graphene.

“The innovative way in which we have implemented this synthetic method allows researchers to obtain a graphene sample within thirty minutes,” enthuses Edgeworth. “This is the fastest CVD production we are aware of!”

Further explaining the benefits of this Edgeworth says: “The nice thing about this is that it allows users to rapidly test the effects of changing CVD scheme conditions, which is important for tailoring material to a particular application.”

Commenting on the support Moorfield has received from TSB and a variety of other supporting bodies, Edgewirth emphasises how delighted Moorfield has been with their attention and assistance.

Working with the Technology Strategy Board, NanoKTN, JEMI and IDB Technologies, we have been able to demonstrate the strength of UK graphene expertise and in particular how our nanoCVD system can enable companies to manufacture graphene themselves, quickly, easily and in a cost-effective and repeatable manner,” he says.