EDITOR: | May 29th, 2017 | 4 Comments

The world of graphene through James Baker’s eyes – Part Two: The Graphene City Strategy

| May 29, 2017 | 4 Comments
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Strategy is my day job, so it was natural that James and I started talking about the bigger picture when we met at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester, UK. That strategic view is a fundamental shift in the demand for graphene from a technology push to a commercial pull. In practise this means the graphene hype is over. The market dynamic is changing to one where industry understands the capabilities of commercially available graphene and is starting to use this new wonder material as an additive to make enhanced new products.

So, success is guaranteed then… Well not quite.

New products such as graphene and other 2D materials are great in the laboratory but they can often fail to make the transition from idea to industry and become world-changing products because of a gap in investment between research and production. In the USA the 2012 Report to the President on Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced manufacturing called this gap the ‘valley of death’

The technology readiness gap

Graphene City is the strategic vision designed to overcome the valley of death problem for graphene and 2D materials. This is what James Baker and his colleagues are implementing with the University of Manchester, UK.

The invisible part of the strategy: Collaboration

James and his team have a systems view of the world. To get graphene and other 2D materials in to every day use needs more than just the NGI.

The University of Manchester, National Graphene Institute, Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre and Industrial collaborations

Everyone has their part to play in taking 2D materials from ideas to industry. The University of Manchester concentrates on Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) 1 and 2 focussing on ideas and developing the concepts.

The NGI overlaps with TRLs 1 to 4 and develops the experimental proof of concept and validating processes in the laboratory.

The new GEIC bridges the investment gap focussing on TRLs 4 to 6 coordinating with the NGI and validating processes and process capability on production equipment.

TRLs 6 to 9 are the focus of industrial partners who will interface with the GEIC and develop the capability to marshal the capability resources to manufacture at scale, developing supply chains and marketing the advanced products that drive the return on investment for which they are configured.

The visible part of the strategy: The buildings

The £61m National Graphene Institute (NGI) is impressive, but as we have seen, James and his colleagues have realised it is not enough. So they are investing a further £60m to build a new centre in Manchester. This will open in 2018 and is called the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC, pronounced as ‘geek’)

The National Graphene Institute and Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre in Manchester, UK

The NGI and GEIC are the most visible part of the ambitious graphene city strategic vision by the University of Manchester. This aims to create a critical mass of scientists, manufacturers, engineers, innovators and industrialists in the city.

Building these shiny new world-class facilities is already attracting and developing a new world-class labour market highly skilled in 2D materials. This means Manchester has the cluster of capability that can take ideas from the laboratory to the wheels of industry.

I came away from meeting James with an awareness of the sense of purpose such a coherent vision creates. This is an exciting place to work and it is only just getting started. Expect to hear more about Graphene City in the future.


Editor:

Adrian Nixon began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a scientist and ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>


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Comments

  • hackenzack

    I’m old enough to remember when being a “systems analyst” was a prestigious occupational thing. The dynamics of the investment gap are perhaps well illustrated by rare earth technology. In the gap, there’s a battle between those who would adopt versus those with legacy and existing operations who wish to quash. If you’re a small company with a big idea and great technology it might not be enough to overcome your large opponents with toes getting stepped on. They’ll use shady hedge funds to short your stock and run you out of cash. An even better example was reefer madness which was actually big timber feeling the threat from hemp which reverberates to this day in massive global conflict over oil. Big auto has a long history of buying patents and shelving them if they feel an existential threat on some level.

    May 30, 2017 - 12:29 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Your take on things is interesting Hackenzack. You are ahead of the pack as usual. Graphene will be the kind of disruptive technology you imply. This will become apparent once the applications side really gets going. Disruption is threatening to the established order, existential indeed. You are quite correct that one of the ways businesses and organisations respond (if they have the resources) is to buy up new technology so they can own the patents and control the threat, or close it down by other means that you articulate so well. This is precisely why when I invented a new process for making sheet graphene I gave it away for free and published it in this column a few weeks ago https://tinyurl.com/z7u3wh4. This was intended to do two things. 1: It releases a (hopefully very good) set of ideas into the wild, and 2: It creates prior art that will make it harder for anyone to patent the core ideas. I know of at least two teams of researchers, one in the UK, one in the USA that have picked up on these ideas for making sheet graphene at scale. I have asked them to think of it as a hypothesis to be disproved or confirmed and tell me what they think. We’ll see what they come back with.

    May 30, 2017 - 5:02 PM

  • hackenzack

    Clever conceptualizing Adrian and somewhat feasible it would seem. Open sourcing is a proven concept for technology development. The classic case is VHS V Betamax. I bet some sort of cooler in temperature rotating drum would serve well in pulling the sheet off the molten surface. This method that you propose might also serve as a way of knitting graphene platelets together. I’m just spitballing here. It’s not my field but it is fascinating. I appreciate your accessibility.

    May 30, 2017 - 7:23 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Thanks Hackenzac, I’m reading into the silence from the two research groups that they think it is feasible too. (If there was an obvious fatal error in the thinking I’m sure they would have pointed it out to me with glee by now) I’ve taken the open source approach to accelerate development for exactly the same reasons you identify.
    Interesting that you thought about a cooler drum for removing the graphene sheet from the melt. Similar thoughts occurred to me too. Possibly by casting the melt onto the outside surface of the drum and allowing the graphene to form on the surface (carbon will become less soluble in the melt as it cools and rise to the surface where it can form the sheet). The mask idea would apply similarly. The problem here is how to remove the graphene sheet from the frozen melt without damaging it.
    The other method would be lowering a cooler drum in contact with the graphene sheet. The problem here would be how to get the sheet to stick to the surface of the drum. I’d thought about micro hooks attached on the surface of the drum (think of something like diamond velcro) to pierce the graphene sheet and pull it from the melt but wasn’t sure if this would shred the graphene in to bits.
    I guess reading between the lines in your message that you favour a freeze drum rather than a freeze wall. It might be simpler to rotate the drum rather than pull the wall away. That’s a clever idea. An issue might be that the frozen metal could weld the drum to the inner wall of the flotation tank and stop it rotating.
    Knitting or welding graphene platelets together is a fascinating idea. I hadn’t considered that in this context. I’ll have a further think about how that might work. The published research papers don’t seem to address making large scale sheet graphene. I think the consensus has evolved that it is impossible and this has closed down the sort of thinking I’ve been doing.
    Glad you appreciate the accessibility. As you know I’ve worked in R&D in a previous life. One of the unexpected benefits of this open source approach is that I can have open conversations like this. It really helps the thought process openly talking through new ideas and I’m finding many of these sorts of conversations refreshing without having to worry about confidentiality. Pretty much everything else I do is client confidential so I never get to talk about it.

    May 31, 2017 - 4:06 AM

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