23 July 2013

Rice University knows its #graphene onions

Last week looked like being quiet on the PR front for graphene until EurekAlert! delivered Graphene 'onion rings' have delicious potential. The researchers, from the Tour Group and the Yakobson Research Group at Rice University, claim that this is “the first time anyone has synthesized graphene nanoribbons on metal from the bottom up -- atom by atom”.

The shape of the ‘structural model’ of this form of graphene is supposed to have given them the idea for the ‘onion rings’ moniker. Maybe they grow their onions in a different shape in Texas.

The press release covers a paper, Hexagonal Graphene Onion Rings in the Journal of the American Chemical Society so you will have to pay to read it. (It really is a cheek putting out a press release for a paper without even offering to provide a copy “on request”.) The interesting bit in the abstract is that “This work reveals a new graphene-nucleation mechanism and could also offer impetus for the design of new 3D spatial structures of graphene or other 2D layered materials.”

The press release also provides a nice explanation of the growth processes and why these are important. There’s a nice quote in the release from James Tour “The big news here,” he said, “is that we can change relative pressures of the growth environment of hydrogen versus carbon and get entirely new structures. This is dramatically different from regular graphene.”

This latest research adds to a growing pile of papers, and press releases, from Tour’s group and Rice University. Back in 2009 he was talking about “a room-temperature chemical process that splits, or unzips, carbon nanotubes to make flat nanoribbons”. And most of the unzipped nanotubes turned into graphene ribbons. That paper, Longitudinal unzipping of carbon nanotubes to form graphene nanoribbons, even made the cover on Nature (see right). The journal has a nice take on that piece of research in its own news report (free to anyone) Nanotubes cut to ribbons.

A year later, Tour gave us “an environmentally friendly way to make bulk quantities of graphene oxide”. In 2011 it was “thin films that could revolutionize touch-screen displays, solar panels and LED lighting”. Both stories inspired press releases from the university. Just search for them on EurekAlert! Don't be surprised by how many hits you find. They really have been that active.

07 July 2013

IEEE Proceeding into business with graphene

With electronic applications high on the wish list for graphene researchers, it makes sense for the IEEE's premier journal to run a special issue on graphene. The July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE, Volume 101 Issue 7, has 19 papers on the exploits of our wonder material.

The ‘guest editors’ for this issue, Elias Towe, Tomas Palacios and Maki Suemitsu, kick off the proceedings with their overview and the observation that, after a century on the sidelines, “the field is
now ready for serious consideration of graphene as an electronic material”. While they say that this issue of the journal sets out “to highlight some of the different devices and applications currently being pursued” is also has some interesting observations on what it will take to get these devices and applications into production. For example, the paper “Graphene Growth and Device Integration” talks about how you grow the stuff using chemical vapour deposition (CVD).

The special issue also goes beyond technology and engineering in the paper “Market Uptake Potential of Graphene as a Disruptive Material”. As its introduction says, this paper “assesses the commercial potential of graphene in large volume applications”. As the guest editors say “the paper focuses on applications where comparisons can be made with other existing materials that currently dominate particular market segments”. The paper’s authors say that they have concentrated on areas “where graphene may offer competitive advantage over incumbent materials”.

Henar Alcalde, who teaches business policy at Deusto University in Spain, and her colleagues say that thanks to its “rare combination of properties, graphene has the potential to be applied in many different fields such as electronics, optoelectronics, energy (solar, batteries, supercapacitors), touch screen and display technology, lighting, sensors, biotechnology, and composites”. But that is no guarantee that graphene will kick aside competing materials in any, let alone all, of these applications. As they add “for graphene to become a truly disruptive material, a number of other conditions have to be fulfilled”.

Perhaps it is because the authors include business researchers that makes their account an easy read. (They do, though, have one graphene insider among the authors, Amaia Zurutuza is the scientific director of the Spanish start-up Graphenea.) The technical stuff isn’t as much a part of their everyday activity as it is for for most of the the engineers and researchers who wrote the rest of the special issue. It is easy to follow their explanations of how graphene's properties give it an edge over existing materials for touch-screen panels and solar cells. The advantage is down to graphene’s flexibility and strength.

It will come as no surprise to read “The main disadvantage of graphene over some of the incumbent materials comes from the point of view of production costs since graphene is currently produced on a
laboratory scale.” But, as they say, give it time.

One good point in their account is where the paper talks about things that graphene can do that are beyond the powers of other materials.  Or, as the authors put it, the application of graphene “to latent user needs that have yet to become unlocked”.

As other technologies have shown, when an upstart threatens to oust a well established material, the old hand has a remarkable ability to keep one jump ahead. An obvious case here is the magnetic material used to store data in hard drives. The density of data on a disk just keeps going up, making it hard for alternatives to compete economically.

Applications where graphene isn’t competing with existing materials include the possibility of “rendering features and qualities to consumer products (such as foldability and flexibility to cell phones and television screens) as a form of ‘incremental innovation,’ leading to the supply of new value propositions on existing product-market combinations, and on the other hand, by giving way to the development of products that would not be possible without the use of graphene”.

Alcalde et al clearly believe that “the possibility of a broad-based uptake and application of graphene is very real”. But that will happen only if the materials proponents can deal with three issue:
  • the cost, scalability, and reliability of graphene development/manufacturing
  • getting the properties right for particular applications and providing something better than the alternatives
  • the health and safety implications of nanotechnology in general and graphene in particular.
The last one is important. Graphene may not have the potential to arouse the same emotional heat as genetically modified food or fracking, but it doesn’t make sense to leave it until the products start to turn up in shops to tackle public acceptability. There is already a cadre of activists who see dangers in nanotechnology. As the paper says “the uptake of graphene depends on sociopolitical considerations:  health and safety regulations”.

As the paper puts it, lapsing into business speak, “The speed of adoption of new materials like graphene depends not only on technological progress in terms of making it fit for final products and putting it in place in production processes, but it also relies considerably on the awareness of the (superior) properties of graphene-based products on behalf of final consumers, so that demand vectors can take shape.” Anyone know what a ‘demand vector’ might be?

There is an interesting extra observation with implications for the politicians who are currently throwing money into graphene research in the hope that it will revive flagging economies. Innovation does not end when an idea emerges from the laboratory. You have to turn it into products and then find customers for them. As the paper puts it, it also depends on “whether the public sector acts strategically through its own public procurement mechanisms and industrial policy levers to support the uptake of graphene in the form of strategic (demonstration) projects, which can provide direction to and leverage private (research and commercialization) initiatives and thus pool resources, also setting out technological pathways and standards early on”.

How long will all this take? Alcalde et al give examples of other new materials that have taken 20 years or more to have an impact. They make the obvious statement that “the time to market will vary depending on the complexity of the application”. Graphene enthusiasts will warm to their statement that “in the case of graphene-based materials, the market incubation period may be considerably shorter than the traditional 20 years base rule”.

The money involved is massive. They reckon that the transparent conductor market “was estimated to be $2 billion in 2012”. And $1.5 billion of this went into indium tin oxide (ITO), one of the applications where graphene’s flexibility, not to mention its “very low light reflectance”, is superior for touch-screens, a rapidly rising technology. As they say “even a small percentage of this market could mean a considerable sales volume for graphene”.

There is another sign that graphene is unlike other new materials that have turned up promising to catalyse an industrial revolution. (Anyone else remember C60?) The material “shows a steeper patenting curve than other materials that have meanwhile reached a mainstream status for usage in industrial and product applications”. For the authors of this paper the sheer mass of activity and the patenting pattern “make it likely that graphene will turn out to be a disruptive material for many products and industries”.

04 July 2013

#Manchester keeps spinning #graphene

The research operation cintelliq ltd "Research, Consulting, Patents for the Organic Semiconductor industry", has a strange news item in the latest issue of its newsletter OSA Direct, which got us all worked up about yet more spin from the Manchester graphene machine.

The story, New graphene spin-out from University of Manchester, covers the formation of 2-DTech, based in the university’s Innovation Centre, and “located in the world’s foremost centre for graphene research and development”. The puzzle is that 2-DTech has been around for something like six months, perhaps longer. Hardly news for a weekly newsletter.

Our extensive filing system threw up an item from February, The University of Manchester and Graphene Commercialisation: Assumptions and Realities, in which Clive Rowland, who runs UMI3 (The University of Manchester Innovation Group), indulges in a Q&A sessions about the launch of 2-DTech. Clive, who knows his onions, explains that the company “makes and sells CVD graphene, graphene platelets, graphene oxide and other advanced materials  with amazing properties, which are being called 2-­D – two dimensional -­ due to their single atomic layer thickness”. As if you didn’t know, CVD stands for Chemical Vapour Deposition.

Unlike many businesses, with an eye on making packets of money out of ideas that exist mostly on paper, 2-DTech is in the first wave of graphene commercialisation and provides stuff for other people to use as they dream up those fancy applications.

Maybe OSA Direct got the idea that this is a new kid on the block from reading an item on the company’s website Graphene – Made in Manchester. Dated 18 June, this makes no claims to being a new business, but it does explain what 2-DTech in more detail. At a quick look it seems that OSA Direct has just added a new beginning to the news item on the company’s website.

The key claim in the company’s news piece, repeated in the newsletter, is that 2-DTech delivers high quality graphene. Taking a sideswipe at the competition it goes on to say “Although there are a large number of graphene-production companies worldwide, some of these provide an inferior quality of material.”

Also in line with the early days of a new technology, 2-DTech offers hand holding service for people who want to put a toe in the graphene water. Along a long lists of services, it says “Talk to us about how graphene can be used in your research/products”. All for a fee, of course. But while this may be the commercial aim, it also seems like a good way of fending off the torrent of would-be visitors to Manchester’s Nobel prize winners and their research teams.

There is an entertaining section on the company’s page about Graphene Products. Down at the bottom it says in a section on Other 2-D materials “Coming Soon”. Given the local activity, we can probably read this as a promise rather than wishful thinking.

02 July 2013

#Cambridge – now with added #graphene

We may be a bit slow on the uptake – what’s new – but it was news to us that there was a “Cambridge Graphene Centre”. The name first appeared at the beginning of the year in the many thousands of papers squirreled away here over the past decade or so. Even Google is relatively sparse on the place. So it was slightly surprising to read Cambridge Graphene Centre and Plastic Logic announce partnership.

It was not news that Cambridge was working on graphene. Four years ago, a chat while waiting at a bus stop on the university's West Cambridge site – lots of shiny new research establishments and building sites – got us following the wonder material. A young PhD student said that her supervisor had set her to work on graphene. If Cambridge was keen to unleash PhDs on to the material, then the subject must be worth investigating.

Since then the university has made little impression on the graphene front, unlike Manchester, for example, which is a formidable PR machine for graphene, with its relentless stream of papers and press releases to go with them.

The Cambridge press release on the deal with Plastic Logic does not tell us much about the origins of the centre, or even when it opened for business. (Appears to have been at the beginning of 2013.) It seems odd that a university as self confident, and self glorifying, often for good reason, as Cambridge didn’t make a big deal about the creation of a new centre.

The best pointer to the history of the site is a single sentence on the Plastic Logic site. This gives us a date in January that leads to the university’s press release Graphene: Taking the wonder-stuff from dream to reality. Here we also read that it gets money in the shape of “a Government grant worth more than £12 million”.

It seems that the centre’s focus – someone needs to proofread the Home Page – is “the central challenge of flexible and energy efficient (opto)electronics, for which graphene and related materials are a unique enabling platform”. This explains why Plastic Logic, a spinout from the university a few years back, is interested. As the company’s name suggests, flexible electronic displays is its game.

You can get an idea of what is happening on graphene throughout Cambridge by checking the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and its backing in the area. The pages Support by Research Area in Graphene and Carbon Nanotechnology, shows 45 grants with a total value of £53,439,336. (Don’t you love those detailed numbers?) Cambridge has eight grants listed worth nearly £20 million, including £6,752,299 for a  Doctoral Training Centre in the Assembly of Functional NanoMaterials and NanoDevices. This makes the university, as in many areas, the biggest recipient of the EPSRC's largesse.

As an aside, on the EPSRC list check Professor Mike Kelly’s ‘small’ project on Manufacturability versus Unmanufacturability and its promise to “develop a set of rules or guidelines that define the boundary between what is actually manufactureable at the nanoscale on the basis of the various techniques used in the fabrication process and what is intrinsically unmanufactureable”. That just shows that Cambridge harbours has some interesting thinkers who are willing to poke their noses into strange areas.

Surrounded as it is by seriously good researchers in these and other areas – just check the list of Academic Associates – the Cambridge Graphene Centre can, if it manages to herd that particular crowd of cats, tap into a formidable array of expertise. And with an advisory board that has both Hermann M. Hauser and (Lord) Alec Broers as members, the centre can clearly make itself heard in high places.

Hauser and Broers can also help with the centre’s avowed interest in the applications of graphene. Both move in circles that thive on the idea that it is important to turn research into money, and that this does not happen by magic. So they can add weight to the centre's statement that “facilities and equipment have been selected to promote alignment with industry”.

When it comes to getting research out of the labs and into the marketplace, it is also worth remembering that, thanks to the work of Dr Stephen Bragg, a member of the family of illustrious scientists, Cambridge started taking technology transfer seriously long before the rest of the UK’s universities.

For years the university, along with Heriot-Watt University, housed one of just two science parks in the country, before every university decided that this was an essential part of any self respecting higher education establishment. And eminent Cambridge scientists such as Professor Sir Richard Friend, as we must now call him, didn’t give a toss when other academics were snooty about their interest in commercialising their research through the creation of Cambridge Display Technology, Plastic Logic and other businesses.

With all this background, if the Cambridge Graphene Centre does come up with anything worth spinning out, it will not have to go far to find people who have already travelled that road. The centre’s own roster of industry partners, unhelpfully presented as a set of logos with little clue of their real involvement, or how much they have chipped in to pay for the place, includes some giants. There is also a minnow or two, including Cambridge Graphene Platform Ltd, with its slogan "Transforming Flexible Printed Electronics" and its promise that it will provide “printable inks derived from graphene and other 2D layered materials”.

The Cambridge Graphene Centre is due to move into its own purpose built facilities later this year. Perhaps that will be the cue for the university to blow its trumpet a bit more loudly.