The great blank that was the Manchester graphene conference

It was billed as one of the key discussions about the wonder material. And it was held in Manchester, where graphene was discovered. Graphite is grabbing headlines, graphene is now starting to join it in the spotlight. Therefore, clearly this was a major news event especially as some of the leaders in the field were presenting papers there.

So, plenty of news to write about, yes? Well, no, by the look of it. Put the conference into Google News and you will see several reports that the conference was beginning on June 13. But as for what went on their – call that a great blank.

From Die Welt to The Financial Times graphene has been covered of late; but it’s déjà vu for those of us who went through the rare earth frenzy in 2011 when everybody in the media and their dog discovered REE. You remember: “Rare earths comprise 17 elements that do everything from ….” Well, you know only too well. Only this time it’s all that basic information about graphene being one atom thick and 200 times stronger than steel. As for the Manchester conference, nothing that I could find. So how about the websites? Checked Scientific American, Science Daily and Discovery. Nothing.

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Plenty of newspapers still, even in their present dark days, have science writers. And there is no question that the Manchester conference would have provided plenty to write about.

Fortunately, someone there took the trouble to write up some aspects. Warwick Grigor of Canaccord Genuity is one of Australia’s best known and most respected analysts of the mining sector and he makes a point of looking at projects for himself. He arrived in Manchester for the conference after being in Turkey (assessing gold and uranium projects) and Sweden (where he went to the mining centre of Kiruna).

Grigor has sent out some news on the conference for his clients, and has written up the event in a manner suited to investors trying to get their heads around graphene rather than for specialists.

He noted that the lecture theatre was “full of high-powered brains giving papers on the uses of graphene for a wide range of purposes”. He says the most notable feature was the universal acceptance that graphene could be combined with many different substances, in relatively small amounts, to great enhance projects. He saw it as not so much about graphene in isolation; rather it seemed to him the interest was in graphene as an additive.

Grigor said there were two corporate/financial speakers who, interestingly, spoke of graph as a “disruptive technology”. They clearly wanted game-changer developments, not incremental advances.

“One speaker said that there were 50 producers of graphene in the world today, but obviously he was including parties that produce a few kilograms at a time,” writes Grigor. “Other people I spoke to said they had trouble sourcing graphene and, sometimes when they had purchased it, the product resembled graphite a lot more than it did graphene. Presenters frequently talked about the production process being ‘bottom up’ or ‘top down’, with all of them involving an element of secrecy, complications and cost”.

Grigor has been watching the graphite scene for some time, acknowledges that it has been “a hot sector”, but adds that much of the interest (at least in Australia) is attributable to graphite and not so much to graphene.

Well, no one can complain that Investor Intel has been ignoring the graphene story.

But, if like Warwick Grigor, you were at the Manchester graphene conference, do post some comments to this item. There will be plenty of Investor Intel readers who would very keen to hear more details of what went on. Alternatively, if anyone knows of reports that Google News might have missed, let us know and we’ll track them down.


    • As the postings below by Marko demonstrate, it is possible for media to attend and report. Most mining conferences charge a (usually substantial) fee for the right to attend but usually the media gets in free; this always happened at the annual Sydney rare earths conference (alas, not held this year which is a commentary on the state of concern).

  1. Although this conference was hosted by The University of Manchester, the home of graphene where the material was isolated in 2004, it was organised by a commercial organisation and as such some of the information is only available on subscription. The University does publish information on our website http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk and when the National Graphene Institute opens in early 2015 we plan to run number of events and seminars which we’ll be more broadly available. We are also pleased to talk to anyone who would like to know more on the exciting developments.

    Daniel Cochlin, Graphene Communications and Marketing Manager, University of Manchester

  2. Ah Robin — thanks for calling me out on this. I had confirmed attendance, but then last minute: I had to pull out. I tried to send Nick Fuller in on my behalf but he had already started trekking down to Brazil for the World Games or something or another. So InvestorIntel was anxious to be there, and clients like GRAFOID did indeed attend. This said, companies like GRAFOID are incredibly discreet; as the competitive analysis in this market makes is advantageous for people to not talk….

    I would argue that the silence was with intent.

    • No, no – I wasn’t calling you out; flying from Toronto to Manchester to do an online post is above and beyond the call of duty. But I was surprised that some of the specialist general media (the business press, particularly) – and media based in Britain – which has been reporting on graphite/graphene as the new wonder substance did not cover the conference (and, as most good reporters would do, pull aside the more interesting speakers afterwards and interview them).

  3. Did you attend?there was one company showing 200 kilos of graphenes and applications. The Junior miners were in dreamland and did not show any evidence they could produce graphene this is shoddy reporting

  4. Hello Robin,
    Your connection of the rare earth frenzy to the graphene hot sector is a good insight.
    Warwick’s summary of the conference is also good too. Graphene as an additive rather than a product in its own right is a clear way of describing the state of the art.

    May I offer a further view:
    Many claims are made for producing graphene on a kilogram scale. This leads the casual observer to assume that sheets of graphene are available in much the same way as rolls of carpet.
    It is very difficult to produce and isolate defect free, continuous sheets of graphene on scales larger than a few centimetres. Most methods produce tiny nanoscale flakes of graphene and this is why Warwick correctly identifies current commercial developments of graphene as an additive.

    Warwick also mentions the bottom up and top down production methods, here is a little more detail:

    Bottom Up (building up graphene atom by atom)
    As you will know, the most successful method so far is chemical vapour deposition (CVD). The graphene sheet is made from exposing hot methane gas to a sheet of copper. Carbon from the methane attaches to the copper surface atom by atom forming a layer of hexagonally connected carbon that is the graphene layer. When the copper surface is covered, no more carbon can deposit and this is why you are left with a carbon layer one atom thick. This method currently produces graphene on a scale of a few centimetres at most and is not defect free. (I can explain why if you are interested)

    This CVD method can also be used to coat structures made of copper with a graphene layer – another form of additive.

    Top Down
    The top down approach starts with graphite, which is made up of myriad layers of graphene sheets laid on top of one another. Production methods centre around separating graphene layers from the graphite.
    This can be done with basic equipment:
    bit.ly/1qeg0vQ
    As an example of a possible additive application – If WD40 contained graphite (it does not) they could use this method to claim a graphene gloss to their product although I suspect this would be more marketing hype than substance.

    Another method is to peel layers of graphene from a block of graphite, in much the same way as Andre Geim.

    If someone has found a big block of graphite that is defect free and larger than tens of centimetres this would be a good investment opportunity. That is, until someone invents a graphene production process that can operate on large scales.

    On your observation of the great blank:
    Competition is indeed intense and could be an explanation for the lack of information. Another explanation could be that the current state of the art of graphene production does not quite live up to the hype and there might be an embarrassed silence.

    About me: I was not at the Manchester conference, however I am a qualified industrial chemist and have and have a continuing interest in the state of the art of graphene production. I have also been working with a Manchester University spin off company on graphene production.

    • Adrian

      Thanks for a most informative post. I am quite sure that Investor Intel readers have studied your comments with great interest and I appreciate the effort you made to come to our aid. This and a few others who have sent in other reports on the conference delivered what I had hoped would happen as a result of my comments: that readers would respond with additional information, which is what has happened.

      Incidentally, Whitman Howard in London have just issued their quarterly commodities report, and the graphite section includes this:

      “North American graphite hopefuls continue to wine and dine Tesla (TSLA- NASDAQ) in the hope of getting a contract to supply the US automobile manufacturer with graphite for their Giga lithium-ion battery factory.
      They should be careful what they wish for as Tesla is looking to significantly reduce its lithium-ion battery costs and part of that cost reduction drive is the price of graphite used in the battery.”

  5. Robin,

    Glad to provide something of interest. Thanks for the reply, I’m interested in the comment you make about Tesla driving down costs of batteries. I have studied the transport fuels sector too and might be able to offer additional information

    This may be another message thread, however I’ll do my best to be brief:

    Much as I admire Tesla, I do have some reservations about purely electric cars based on the fundamentals of the science.
    The distance a car can travel on battery power is a function of the energy density of the battery – how much energy you can contain, then deliver in a given volume.
    Looking at battery energy density trends over the past 100 years – then projecting into the future – it will take another 50 years for batteries to reach the energy density of liquid fuels such as diesel.
    If interested, I have a book on Amazon that shows the sequence of facts behind this – and explores the future trends for the oil industry.
    The UK Amazon link is: amzn.to/1vviLrS
    (this has the reviews – the book is available from the Australian Amazon website)
    Let me know if interested and I’ll make a free copy available to download for you and your readers for a day.

    • Afternoon Adrian — or should I say good morning? I would be very interested in hearing more –, can you please email me at Tracy@InvestorIntel.com because our readers may find your commentary more accessible in a column format. This is the kind of debate on a story that keeps me and our readers coming back. Thank you Robin for facilitating this excellent feedback!

  6. Miners are looking at Tesla as being the great savior. It’s not that simple. Tesla realizes that it can’t accomplish its dream on its own, so it is opening up its patent portfolio with the hope that, by sharing the potential wealth, that there will, in fact, be wealth. This is like the economy as a whole. If people think the economy will grow, their expectations will make it grow. If they lose faith, it will implode like the dot com bubble. Tesla’s stock is priced for success, so people have faith in the dream. Reaching out for that dream will cause a rapid pace of innovation, though not necessarily fast enough to build the factories on schedule. The mining winners and losers will depend upon the materials necessary for the components that eventually get manufactured.

    On the down side, if Tesla’s dream starts falling apart, one of the big traditional automakers would probably buy up the company, perhaps more for the mystique to be used in marketing, than for the technology. A few decades ago Apple was spiraling down the drain, and Microsoft bought up 10% of the company. This cash infusion allowed Apple to survive. In Microsoft’s case, this was to maintain a viable competitor, so that Microsoft wouldn’t face AT&T style anti-trust initiatives from the US government. So Tesla’s mega factory probably will get built, though it’s premature to pick the likely mining winners from this.

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