How to commercialise graphene

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2014

Nabil Zahlan, head of the Graphene Special Interest Group, outlines the path to commercialisation for the material.

The UK pioneered research into graphene and is also aiming to lead commercialisation, but two challenges require Government intervention as the UK strives to convert its advanced research into commercial potential. Firstly, single organisations don’t have all the capabilities required to take graphene from the lab to a commercial product. The value chain – which includes research, characterisation, graphene production, scale-up, integration into applications and manufacture on commercial scale – is long and complex. To deliver, all parts of this chain need to work together.

Secondly, graphene’s potential is broad and it is not clear which applications will deliver the benefits first. Government support needs to cover all industries that are interested – without attempting to pre-determine winners.

Realising the opportunity
Potential users of graphene are monitoring research and waiting for the right time to pounce, but if everyone does this, that time will never come. To provide incentive, the UK Government has offered support, the first step being a £2.5 million joint TSB and EPSRC funding call, which ran through April and May 2014. The call was open to all industry sectors and looked for small projects that test an idea.

The funding competition requires a lead company to partner with others in industry and academia, splitting the workload among the partners. This helps de-risk the exploration of ideas by industry, while ensuring they are actively involved. This is the first public funding for graphene innovation in the UK. It builds on earlier funding for research by EPSRC and selective investment by industry, mainly in the supply of materials.

Connecting the players

Bringing the right people together can be challenging. Many businesses wonder whether they can use graphene, while others are developing a service for the emerging industry and need to integrate into the bigger network. The Knowledge Transfer Network and the Graphene Special Interest Group are good starting points for understanding how you can help or be helped.

For those looking for science support, the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, where graphene was first isolated, has all-round capability. The Cambridge Graphene Centre has particular expertise in printed electronics, while Imperial College London has excellent capabilities in composites. For characterising and testing, the National Physical Laboratory is a world leader.

Others need to know where to buy graphene. The material comes in different forms, produced by different companies from small area platelets (Thomas Swan) to large area graphene (Aixtron). Others supply production equipment, such as (Oxford Instruments). These are just a sample of the UK graphene players. The Government also recently announced funding for a graphene innovation centre, which will bridge the gap from lab research to commercialisation.

Money was flagged for this in the 2014 Budget and details are being finalised. A call for investment in production presents another issue – what actually constitutes graphene? In theory, graphene is a single layer of carbon arranged in a hexagonal web, but in reality, it may be two, three or 10 layers thick and may contain other elements. The near future will see this question answered and standards set.

Making it happen
Commercialisation feels within grasp, but realising it will not be simple. The user industry needs to engage and begin to test and validate the benefits of graphene within the applications they produce. The established science base and the emerging material suppliers can support this and together leverage the public funding that is available. The Graphene SIG has been set up to connect businesses with partners who can work collaboratively to realise the graphene benefit and is mapping of all the UK’s graphene players in order to meet this aim.

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