Global Business Leaders Mag
For decades, the potential for carbon-based wonder material graphene has been understood in theory.
The realization of that theory took a big step forward in 2004 when two Russian scientists managed to isolate graphene for the first time at the University of Manchester in the UK. The pair subsequently won a Nobel Prize for their work.
But the lingering problem has been scaling up production from the laboratory bench to commercial quantities and consistent quality. The complexity is that graphene consists of single layers of pure carbon atoms, so isolating it can be a challenge.
That all changed two years ago when Australian-listed First Graphene Limited (ASX: FGR) pioneered a process to convert graphite into high-purity graphene at volume and launched its PureGRAPH® range of graphene additives to the market.
As an additive, graphene offers significant improvements in terms of strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, flexibility, and impermeability. The initial focus of researchers was for graphene to be used in high-tech applications such as supercapacitors, precision electronics, batteries, and to strengthen components used in the aerospace industry.
First Graphene quickly realized there were significant opportunities in much larger, more mainstream industrial applications across sectors such as mining, construction, marine, and high-volume plastics and composites manufacturing.
Through its research division, based at Manchester University’s Graphene Engineering & Innovation Centre (GEIC) and its work with customers around the world, First Graphene has identified and implemented graphene-enhanced options across a broad range of common industrial applications including composite materials, elastomers, and polymers, concrete and cement, and coatings.
Work is also underway in the higher-tech areas, including advanced work on the supercapacitor front and with hydrogen fuel cells.
But in recent months, work with foundation customers on more everyday products has started to come to fruition, with commercial launches of graphene-enhanced swimming pools, safety footwear, and wear liners used in the mining industry. The company has also developed a range of fire-retardant paints which capitalize on the protective barrier properties offered by graphene.
While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly led to some temporary delays on a number of projects, it was short-lived. The past 12 months have been a transformative period as the business evolved from its development phase to a more concerted commercial growth focus and expanded global reach.
That coincided with the retirement of the founding CEO, who was instrumental in developing the production process, and the appointment of Singapore-based Michael Bell as the company’s new CEO.
Commercial growth is an area that Mr. Bell is well versed in. He has previously worked in a range of high-growth industries, from privately owned businesses to multi-national corporations across a broad range of sectors including consumer and commercial electronics, software, marine, and offshore engineering, and defence. Earlier in his career, the New Zealand native was part of the team responsible for the expansion and significant global growth of telematics provider Navman Wireless, which was subsequently acquired by the Danaher Corporation.
At present, the company has the capability to produce around 100 tonnes (110 tons) of the product in powdered and aqueous paste formats. A pelletized masterbatch range was also recently released, providing an easy integration option for manufacturers of plastic, rubber, and elastomer-based components. The pellets contain pre-dispersed graphene in particular quantities, allowing manufacturers to incorporate its use into existing production lines.
Given graphene is an extremely lightweight material and most applications only require very small additions of graphene to realize significant improvements, the company is keeping up with global demand.
But Mr. Bell expects that demand to increase exponentially and says the technology is highly scalable.
“We’ve announced a range of agreements with some major manufacturers and service providers that in turn have the potential to expand First Graphene’s reach into new verticals and new geographies,” Mr. Bell said.
“First Graphene customers have recently launched swimming pools, safety footwear, and wear liners for the mining industry among other products, and our focus is on further expansion in those sectors as well as building our capacity in areas such as specialized coatings. As an example, the company recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Advanced Material Development to collaborate in the area of conductive inks.”
One of Mr. Bell’s first moves on commencing with First Graphene early this year was to appoint commercial managers to focus on key verticals.
The first appointment was to promote existing staff member Neil Armstrong to the role of Commercial Manager Composites and Plastics. Like his namesake who was the first person to step on the moon, this Neil Armstrong was one of the pioneers in developing commercial opportunities for graphene.
Unlike the astronaut, Mr. Armstrong is far more comfortable on the ground, or in the water.
As such, he was instrumental in helping swimming pool manufacturer Aquatic Leisure Technologies to develop its range of Graphene Nano-Tech pools.
Similar technology and techniques have been used to make the first graphene-enhanced boat, which is currently undergoing sea trials, and a “ding-resistant” surfboard.
Mr. Bell’s second appointment was concrete and cement industry expert Todd McGurgan, who is well known in the Asia Pacific area, having worked with some of the region’s largest cement and concrete providers.
As one of the most commonly used materials in the world, concrete presents a range of challenges in terms of sustainability and disposal.
First Graphene’s research has found that very small additions of graphene—less than 1 percent—result in up to 30 percent increased strength and a significant reduction in water usage. Ultimately, that provides an opportunity to achieve required structural integrity with thinner concrete slabs and panels.
Graphene also enhances thermal conductivity in concrete. That is important as it results in more even drying of concrete structures, in turn inhibiting cracking and fractures that can result from uneven heat distribution.
In addition, initial research has found that adding graphene to recycled concrete can return it to near-new mechanical properties.
A third commercial specialist, Matt Curthoys, has been appointed to focus specifically on marine composites and renewable energy applications.
Mr. Bell says First Graphene is in the process of recruiting commercial specialists to focus on coatings, elastomers, and rubber applications, with a range of active and potential commercial opportunities in train in those areas.
“To date, we’ve worked predominantly with end-users such as pool, safety wear, and mining product manufacturers,” Mr. Bell said.
“But with some of the recent agreements and MoU’s we’ve put in place, we expect to move the focus upstream to material suppliers, which will significantly increase the size of the markets we’re addressing. That’s why we need dedicated subject matter experts to target specific verticals.”
At the same time, First Graphene remains at the forefront of research and innovation. The company has recently developed and patented a novel process to convert certain petroleum feedstocks into high purity graphene, graphite, and clean hydrogen without any carbon dioxide or other pollutant emissions.
The process, which uses cavitation chemistry, has the potential to provide petroleum companies with alternative pathways as the reliance on combustible fuels such as diesel and gasoline declines and the electric vehicle market continues to grow.
Among other uses, high purity graphite is in demand for use in the batteries that power EVs, while hydrogen can be used as a clean source of energy.
First Graphene is focused on improving sustainable outcomes across multiple industries. Mr. Bell says the company utilizes the highest-grade graphite available which involves minimal purification and produces almost no waste in the process of conversion to graphene.
“Our focus is on minimizing waste at every step in the value stream, from responsible mining and mineral processing operations right through to extending the functional life of products that incorporate our PureGRAPH® additives,” he said.
“We are also actively pursuing opportunities in the renewable energy sector, not just in terms of energy storage applications for the electric vehicle market, but also in developing graphene-enhanced turbine blades for wind farms.
“Disposal of old blades poses a landfill problem but by increasing the life of each blade, we can reduce that issue.”
Mr. Bell has no misconceptions about the tasks ahead but says First Graphene has a prime first-mover advantage.
“The company is the world’s only manufacturer of commercial quantities of consistent grade graphene and we have an enormous opportunity to capitalize on that position,” he said.
“In addition, we have the best research and development people globally and access to the world’s best facilities at the GEIC, which means we can carry out advanced R&D and work with customers through the entire development lifecycle, from devising the most appropriate graphene formulations for the application, to advanced testing.”