The city of Manchester breathes its industrial past through all its pores. Buildings are functional, chimneys always in sight, and plenty of bars provide the work force with their deserved pints after a day of rough work. It is surprising that in this industrial town of cotton production two Russian scientists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, isolated the delicate single atom thick material graphene.
From that eureka moment on, developments in graphene research have flourished. Ten years after isolation, graphene is ready to be exposed to the demands of industrial application. No more special academic treatment for graphene. Graphene needs to face rough reality, and where better than in Manchester where London Business Conferences organized the Graphene Supply, Applications and Commercialization Summit on the 12. and 13. June 2014.
On the opening day Jani Kivioja, head of nano materials at the Nokia research center in Cambridge, posed that graphene needs killer applications – those where only graphene can make a difference. Most likely we do not know the existence of these applications. At the beginning of the last century, Henry Ford stated that when one asks people what they desire, they would say “faster horses”, not “cars”. The graphene equivalent of the car might just be cheap graphene membranes as presented by Steve Sinton from Lockheed Martin. The ultimate thinness of graphene could provide the world with cheap high permeability membranes for high throughput sea water desalination. Another unexpected device that might have impact on all our lives is a high speed graphene oxide humidity sensor as demonstrated by Nokia research.
Going from device demonstration to actual device production needs a supply of graphene of consistent quality. A large part of the summit was devoted to the supply of graphene: for electronic devices in the form of CVD graphene and for composites or conductive paints in the form of graphene platelets. The consensus was that the material production techniques are currently of sufficient quality.
Kitty Chu from BASF stressed that it is now crucial to develop quality control methods that provide end users of raw graphene materials with the right tools to judge the suitability of a batch for their production process. Andrew Pollard from the National Physical Laboratory in the UK presented his institutes’ effort towards setting standards for graphene materials. At the moment, Raman spectroscopy seems to be the method of choice for large scale characterization. Next to Raman, microscopic techniques like scanning or transmission electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy and x-ray photon spectroscopy also provide good insights in the material properties.
The field of graphene platelets especially suffers from the lack of standards. Perpetuus carbon technologies, a producer of functionalized graphene composites, pointed out that different producers of graphene inks produce very different products while marketing them under the same name. Talga resources, a company that produces graphene platelets directly from raw graphite oar, takes a very realistic position on this problem: ‘if the graphene product does not live up to the customers expectations, we sell it to someone else as graphite.’
The conference speakers agreed that the graphene platelet market will be large. On several occasions during the meeting, rough back of the envelope calculations were made to estimate the market size. The polymer, concrete, and steel markets in particular are expected to drive the success of graphene platelets – not to forget coatings of different sorts. Mark Lineker from TBA protective solutions demonstrated a graphene based conductive ink ready to be sold and applied as for example an ESD protective coating.
The broad range of topics covered on the conference was reflected by a broad background of the attendees. Not only large companies like Nokia, IBM, Samsung, BASF, Lockheed Martin and Tata, but also promising graphene start ups like Perpetuus, Applied Nano Layers and Graphenea were present. Moreover, medium sized enterprises and research institutes outside the conventional graphene landscape were present at the conference.
The representatives of the companies and institutes were not visiting the conference out of pure curiosity, they were there to show their initial efforts on graphene products or to judge if graphene is a material that can benefit their business. That graphene is a material being taken seriously for commercialization could not have been better demonstrated by the presence of business developers, venture capitalists and “angel” investors. The Graphene Supply, Application and Commercialization Summit 2014 underlined the general belief that the amount of business opportunities graphene offers is larger than ever.