New partnership to boost graphene’s commercial opportunities

Posted on 20 Jul 2018 by Jonny Williamson

A new characterisation service for graphene has been launched to help businesses and industries better take advantage of the material’s commercial opportunities.

Inov -8 partnered with the University of Manchester to become the first-ever-company to incorporate graphene into running shoes – image courtesy of inov-8.

The service has been launched by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester, and was established to help the UK to cash in on graphene, by providing the ‘missing link’ for the material’s industrialisation.

Commercially, graphene comes in several forms, such as flakes in a powder or liquid, each with variations in properties, yield and reproducibility of the product.

Material standardisation is a crucial aspect in any mass-market uptake but, as with all new technologies, international standards for graphene are in their infancy.

As such, manufacturers are largely unable to verify that the graphene that they are working with has the desired properties. In fact, as it is unregulated, companies cannot even be sure what material they are buying, a point recently highlighted by the FCA in a warning for investors.

The aim: commercialisation of graphene

The new graphene characterisation service, led by the organisations leading the standard for graphene, aims to allow companies to understand the properties of the material they are working with in greater detail.

By providing this service, the NPL and NGI hope to accelerate the industrialisation of graphene in the UK – forging the missing link between graphene research and development, and its application in next-generation products.

If the UK fails to put the building blocks in place for industrialisation of graphene, it could risk missing out on the associated economic boom.

James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester at the University of Manchester, noted: “We often talk about the barrier of commercialisation. The question is – why does it ]often take many years to take a new element from its discovery through to the laboratories up to the marketplace?

“The problem is a lack of standards and a lack of understanding in terms of what the material is and what the material is not.”

To be graphene or not to be graphene!

Start-up entrepreneurs, investors, manufacturers and members of the British Standards Institution I spoke to at the launch of the characterisation service, shared the opinion that a lack of standards is the main obstacle to their designs on building a future-proofed business model around graphene.

Ray Gibbs, CEO at materials technology supplier – Haydale, said: “In the early days, there was hype surrounding semi-metal graphene which was a good thing because it boosted research and investment from the UK government; but, it was also bad because it created unreasonable and exaggerated expectations.

“A problem back then was that the material supplied to us didn’t match the data sheets, because they were written by people who didn’t understand what they were doing.”

Ultralight high-performance mechanical watch made with graphene – image courtesy of Richard Mille.

The new characterisation service purposes two goals; the first one is to identify what graphene is – what makes graphene really graphene? It is crucial to give end users as well as manufacturers in the supply chain community an instrument to fully understand the material characteristics.

Graphene@Manchester’s Baker said: “Unfortunately, we found a lot of counterfeit graphene in various products on the market; a Chinese firm launched underwear made of counterfeit graphene that – so the advert said – retains heat, eliminates odour and kills bacteria too.”

“These fake products not only damage the market, they do harm to the whole graphene science community, and cause confusion for businesses which would like to engage with the new material.

“The second reason for the launch of the service is to gain a sufficient understanding of the performance of the element.” Graphene is set to improve the quality of life for many across the globe, its potential applications include inexpensive water purification systems.

The ‘magic metal’ can enable manufacturers to make greener, more efficient cars and planes; flexible phones and solar cells, and biomedical applications such as wound healing and cancer treatments.

Added value in the supply chain, employment boost 

An efficient, secure and less expensive way of manufacturing the semi-metal could create many new untapped economic possibilities across the industries – add value to the supply, boost exports and employment.

However, to build up dynamic markets, reliable supply chains and a healthy economic ecosystem around graphene, it is essential to set up and define international standards.

“With this new characterisation service starts to reform the market around what graphene is, and how it can be used in different products and applications.”

Early adopters – benefits in sight!

A spokesperson from the NPL said that early adopters of graphene technology are already seeing benefits, however, to fulfil its massive potential, it needs to be industrialised, which will see the quality and reproducibility of the material on offer increase (due to standardisation), and the price of graphene drop (due to economies of scale).

By providing reliable, accurate and consistent measurement and assessment of graphene, and giving industry the information, it needs to scale up the production and application of the material, this initiative will help to ensure the UK remains a world-leader in the graphene industry.

It will also help to foster graphene innovation hubs across the UK by supporting agile, forward-thinking companies like those seen in Silicon Valley, with a similarly stimulating effect on the economy.