The world of Graphene through James Baker’s eyes – Part 1
As job titles go Graphene Business Director is a good one. Add the words ‘National Graphene Institute’ and it becomes rather cool. The NGI in Manchester is the centre of graphene research and commercialisation in the UK. If your work in the field of graphene is world-class you’ll probably have a connection with this place.
I’m talking with James Baker in his office in the NGI building. He has a relaxed and easy-going manner, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating him. He is a chartered engineer (You have to be better than very good to be awarded CEng). He has an impressive blend of blue chip industrial and academic experience. In short, this man knows his stuff and is one of those rare people who operate just as easily in the realms of research as the kingdoms of commerce.
I’m here to find out what the graphene world looks like from James’ perspective.
Consider this, he said: “Graphene is a teenager”. Graphene was first isolated in Manchester, UK, in 2004 so it is only thirteen years old. This is relatively young as new technologies take time to establish and grow. Think about a similar new product, carbon fibre composites. They were invented at Farnborough, UK, in the 1960s and it took 20 to 30 years before they were fully accepted as commercial products. They started with things like elite sports with tennis racquets and formula one racing. Defence and aerospace applications incorporated the technology and in 2017, over 50 years later, carbon fibre composites form over 50% of the parts of the latest airbus A350 aircraft.
I ask James about his view of the graphene industry as a whole. We talk about the Gartner hype curve that all innovative technologies broadly experience. This is a predictable yet inevitable sequence of events that happens time and time again.
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The discovery of graphene triggered a wave of innovation as its properties were communicated to the world – the strongest material known, the most electrical and thermally conductive etc. Graphene quickly became the solution looking for a problem. Expectations grew rapidly with the marketing hype, everyone wanted to get involved and the excitement reached its peak in 2010 with the attention generated by the Nobel Prize.
My own view of what happened next was that potential customers discovered that they couldn’t actually get hold of quantities of the product they expected. For example potential customers expecting they would be able to hold a sheet of graphene in their hands actually get presented with a rather ordinary looking black powder of microscopic pieces. Others realised all they could hope for was a small piece of metal coated with a thin film of the wonder material that was very difficult to remove. This is how disillusionment rapidly spread so that investors and customers turned their attention away from graphene to other immediate opportunities.
This trough of disillusionment brought some realism and relative peace that gave scientists and technologists the time and freedom to develop and prove the new technology.
James notes that steady progress has been made since 2010; niche applications such as graphene powders and dispersions could be made reliably. These have developed into performance additives that increase the strength and other properties of plastics. The NGI in particular has been a catalyst, nurturing scientists and championing real world applications of graphene.
The NGI and others are keeping the interest in graphene current by collaborating with technology partners. Recent events have demonstrated unmanned aircraft with graphene-enhanced wings at international air shows. A million dollar watch made from graphene composite was premiered at the NGI this year along with a supercar made with graphene enhanced carbon fibre components.
This visibility is important and part of deliberate plan. It is moving the emerging market from one where the questions were about ‘what is graphene?’ to today where the dialogue is more about “I have this particular problem, I need graphene to help”. In essence the market drivers have moved from a push dynamic to a pull from the market. This is a far more sustainable foundation for the emerging industry.
In summary, carbon is a technology we understand well. Carbon is not new. What is new with graphene is its two dimensional (2D) nature which confers special properties. The research and development around this area is expanding rapidly, we are learning all the time.
Graphene is just one of a family of over one hundred 2D materials that can be combined to create totally new man-made materials. It is an exciting time to be a scientist and Manchester is implementing a strategy to link the scientific and industrial communities of the future and stimulate the economic power that the discoveries and inventions of the future will bring. For more about that, dear InvestorIntel reader, you will have to wait for part two of this interview…
Adrian Nixon is a Senior Editor at InvestorIntel. He began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>