22 August 2013

Manchester does the business with #graphene

Not much has been happen to graphene in these dog days of summer, when all sane journalists go to earth. With few politicians to run around making daft statements, and much of Europe shut down, publications have a hard time finding anything serious to write about. One consequence of the silly season is that, just as Friday is a good day to bury news during normal times, August is a fine time to put out stuff that you don’t really want trumpeted to the heavens.

Can this really be why the University of Manchester chose the holiday season to trickle out the news that it has "appointed a Business Development and Strategy Director for graphene to attract some of the world’s biggest companies to partner with the National Graphene Institute”?

This is, after all, the university that gives lab space to none other than Andre Geim, “inventor” and cheerleader for graphene, and the man who,  a week or so before the latest announcements, said in a programme on BBC Radio 4 that the taxpayer funded his research, so he felt no great urge to patent his work or to rush to make money out of it. (The BBC also gave air time to Geim’s ideas in a recent Radio 4 Profile of the frog levitating Nobel laureate.) If the taxpayer backed him, Geim argued, then he owes it to society to publish what he does openly for anyone to develop as they see fit.

Perhaps it is just the conspiracy theorist in us that looks for ulterior motives behind the absence of Geim’s name in Manchester’s announcement that Nathan Hill, another lapsed physicist, is to be Business Development and Strategy Director. (It can be hard to tell these days if those capital letters deliberate, and a job title, or sloppy editing.) The press release tells us that the appointment “marks a pivotal phase in the engineering and commercial development of graphene as an industrial material”.

Hill certainly has done time in a business that grew out of university research. He worked at Oxford Instruments “where, as a Managing Director, he worked on thin film and bulk superconductors and semiconductor materials and devices”, all good grounding for work on graphene. Over on the website of another of Hill’s businesses, Qi3, with a focus on “providing hands-on expertise in all aspects of marketing technology-based products, from strategy to implementation”, we read that his skills “are in sales, sales management, product marketing, strategic portfolio management, acquisitions and general management in export markets”.

Those skills probably explain why Manchester reeled him in. The job there seems to be to bring in businesses to work with the local researchers. Hill’s first job there, we read, “will be to set up a graphene Industry Club and a number of strategic partnerships with major companies”. At a strategic level, the job will be “focus on strategy and business development for the £61m National Graphene Institute”.

These days governments throw money like that at research in the expectation of a payback. They don't invest in research for its own sake. There has to be impact, as they tirelessly proclaim. So there has to be someone in there countering the woolly minded liberal thinking of all those scientists who do research fore the fun of it and for the greater good of mankind, rather than for the money that they could make out of it.

06 August 2013

Share pushers discover #graphene

You know that a technology is fashionable when share tippers deploy it to rope in suckers. Last week brought no fewer than three invitations to read reports offering insider information on how to make money by investing in graphene businesses. Fortunately, not all of these invitations turn out to be from operations that, a century ago, would have purveyed snake oil.

Let’s get the good guy out of the way first: Cientifica, the self styled "leading authority on rational technology information", has put out Investing in Graphene. (With luck the PDF link will work for you.) This is worth reading for one section alone, the bit where, unlike many reports on graphene, it looks back at previous carbon bubbles. In particular, it says of C60 and nanotubes:

“As often happens with nanomaterials, realizing any return  on the huge investment in production  capacity proved far more difficult than people would  ever imagine. Investors lost substantial amounts of  money in venture-backed companies such as C60 and  Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. (CNI), while industry giants  such as Bayer struggled to sell their product for over a  decade before recently throwing in the towel.”
The new brief report from Cientifica gives a blow-by-blow account of attempts to commercialise nanotubes, something rarely mentioned by graphene's advocates, who don't seem to know much history. (It could also have used as a carbon-free example, high-temperature superconductors, which many years after it collected a Nobel Prize almost within months of discovery, has yet to live up to the promise of changing the face of energy transmission.)

Cientifica goes on to say that graphene could be different because “Unlike previous carbon nanomaterials, graphene appears to lend itself to processing either through CVD grown sheets of the material or by dispersing nano platelets of graphene in various other media to produce inks paints and coatings.” The fact that the report doesn’t bother to explain what CVD stands for – chemical vapour deposition, of course – tells us that this document is not intended for your average “day trader”. (Actually, maybe it was just an editing lapse, one of several in the document.)

Riding the hype cycle

Given the space available, Cientifica’s document is good on its description of the “Nanomaterials Hype Cycle”. It also goes on to offer advice on assessing graphene producers.
“When looking at graphene producers there are a few simple rules to help pick the winners. The ones to survive and prosper will not necessarily be the ones with the best technology, in early stage materials production its all about top line revenue and keeping ahead of the chasing pack.”
It also makes the sound hype-cutting observation that “no one buys graphene but they do buy batteries, composites, sensors and touch screen components”. Any serious investor might well read this and move on to more promising ways of making money. Fair enough, Cientifica is not a share tipster.

The same is not true of two other outfits that popped up with sponsored ads on a graphene news site inviting visitors to sign up for newsletters and reports on graphene. Normally wary if such invitations, this one appeared on a site that I have usually considered reliable, so I clicked the buttons to get these free reports.

The process also signed me up for daily newsletters. You might think that these might have something to do with graphene. They were really more interested in telling me of the value of investing in silver and gold, important materials, maybe, but hardly new to the world of technology.

One of these reports has the grandiose title How to Invest in the Graphene Revolution. Not really, it is just a share tipster pushing a mining company. The odd bit is that the company involved, Northern Graphite Corp., does not push itself as a graphene business, the  word does not even feature in its latest “Corporate Update”.

This is not surprising given the other markets for graphite. Take the lithium-ion battery. The company tells us that “Graphite demand in Lithium ion batteries was estimated at 44,000 tonnes in 2008 or about 10 per cent of the flake market.” So why try to make strange claims about unknown markets that now need small amounts of graphite when there are already people queuing up to buy tonnes of the stuff?

Mines of misinformation

Northern Graphite is really in business to develop a graphite mine, so the compeny, like graphene's fans, in the carbon business, so it isn’t that dumb that it eschews all reference to the magic material. After all it may well come up in a web search. The site has a brief and measured description of Graphene with links to other sources of information.

Northern Graphite has even put a toe in tyhe graphene water and provided material to "an eminent professor in the field at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is doing research making graphene sheets larger than 30cm2 in size using the graphene oxide methodology". But that is as far as it goes in trying to enthuse potential investors.

The people at Northern Graphite would probably go along with Cientifica’s analysis. It would be interesting to know what they make of the attentions of the share tippers. And why did those tippers decide that possible sales of graphene is a better sales pitch than a large and growing existing market for batteries or fuel cells?

There are others out there claiming to offer advice on how to make loadsamoney out of graphene. One of these sites has a link from the text “What’s the only graphene investment on earth worth considering right now?” The get rich quick mob will be disappointed if they follow the link it delivers the report Massive Breakthrough For Graphene Investors.

The report turns out to be as misleading as the title and the link. For a start it would seem to fly in the face of the boosters of mining companies. It warns “there's no good way to invest in graphene - or the graphite carbon it's made from - as a commodity”. 

What no breakthrough?

As well as missing the promised advice on “the only graphene investment on earth worth considering right now”, this report also has no mention of massive breakthroughs for graphene investors. Instead it offers mostly sane warnings. As it says “finding the right vehicle to catch the graphene wave will be a challenge – requiring both patience and close attention”.

Here’s our own personal tip on who will make early money on graphene, look no further than the people who make the equipment that is in demand among people who are looking for possible applications of graphene. Then again, these are often small companies that also sell to other bits of the R&D community.

Were it not for some of the promises made on the website – including the claim that “Doctors will soon use it to create implants that will end brain disease...” – the report, minus its title, is sound advice that is mostly in line with Cientifica’s careful approach. Perhaps the idea is just to sign up subscribers to its services.

Finally, we came across a new report from Research and Markets that makes no claim to offer investment advice. And if information is worth what you pay for it, there should be plenty of opportunities to earn money after reading The Global Market for Graphene to 2020. This report costs from £850 to read, well beyond our pockets.

There isn’t even a press release evident on the company’s site to provide a tempting morsel from the report. Fortunately, there is a release over on Business Wire The Graphene Market: Graphene sees explosive demand in a variety of industries with long term prospects for applications in electronics and optics. Unfortunately, the title is about as much information as you are going to get without shelling out for the report.

This new report from Research and Markets is just one of a shelf full of expensive reports on graphene, priced between £79 and £3089. Good to see that someone is making money out of graphene.