What can web scraping reveal about the commercialization of graphene? That’s the question Philip Shapira, Abdullah Gök and Fatemeh Salehi Yazdi have set out to answer using a mixture of computerized data mining and other analytical techniques.
The team, based at Manchester Business School, has chosen graphene as a ‘demonstrator’ to road-test its approach, which identifies patterns from publicly available information hosted on enterprise websites. The hope is that these methods can assist in providing ‘real-time intelligence’ to map the development of rapidly emerging materials and technologies.
In the pilot study, Shapira and his colleagues have focused on a set of 65 graphene-based small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) based in 16 different countries – 49.2% of the SMEs in the sample are located in North America, 15.4% in the UK, 18.5% in Western Europe and 16.9% in East Asia and emerging nations. The researchers acknowledge that they haven’t captured every graphene SME in every country, particularly in China, and note this under-representation should be kept in mind when comparing across the regions.
Presenting their findings in a Nesta working paper, the authors draw attention to the following –
Access to finance and the firms’ location are significant factors that are associated with graphene product introductions.
Patents and scientific publications are not statistically significant predictors of product development in their sample of graphene SMEs.
Graphene SMEs are focusing mainly on upstream and intermediate offerings in the value chain.
Relationship between different value chain positions – [equipment:11] [material:44] [intermediate:26] [final:2] – of SMEs in the study. Credit: Nesta Working Paper 15/14
According to the data, the mention of other 2D materials on a company website turned out to be a significantly negative predictor of introducing a product into the market. “In other words, focusing on graphene was more likely to be associated with a product introduction – perhaps because other 2D materials are as yet further away from being ready for the market or because focusing on multiple materials in a resource-constrained SME might diffuse or slow down commercialisation capabilities,” comment the authors in their work.
Supporting movement up the value chain
As the researchers note, currently there is an emphasis in SMEs on producing advanced graphene materials, although many are signalling plans to develop more intermediate graphene products that should have higher value in the marketplace. Technology intermediary organisations are likely to be important in supporting these next stages of graphene development – examples include the UK National Graphene Institute, which opened in March this year, and its sister facility the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, which is planned for completion in 2017.
Semiconducting polymers are a key ingredient in organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), organic photovoltaics (OPVs) and organic field effect transistors (OFETs) – and pave the way for future bendable electronic devices. The technology is driving advances in the design of flexible displays, conformable energy harvesters, and wearable sensors to name just a few applications. What’s more, thanks to their solubility in many organic solvents, semiconducting polymers provide device makers with a range of appealing fabrication options including ink-jet printing, spray-coating and roll-to-roll production.
Optimizing the composition of the blended film is important to balance the cost versus performance. In many cases, high electrical conductivity and high optical transmittance in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum are critical factors. However, other aspects such as flexibility, film formation, chemical stability and wettability can also play an important role in the choice of the material or the composition to be used, together with overall processing considerations.
Case study: semi-transparent electrodes for flexible optoelectronics
In a recent study, published in the journal Translational Materials Research (TMR), materials scientists have examined a blend comprising poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene):polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT:PSS) and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), which can be used as a flexible, semi-transparent and highly-conductive material in electronic and optoelectronic devices. The electrical conductivity and optical transmittance of spray-deposited films of various thicknesses and blend ratios were evaluated to determine the most appropriate composition for optimal device performance and cost.
Presenting their results as a series of figure of merit diagrams, the researchers observe that it should be possible to decrease the PEDOT:PSS content in the blend down to 30% (by weight) and maintain an acceptable level of electrical conductivity for many applications.
Angstron Materials, a US supplier of single and few-layer graphene materials, announced this week that it has secured $5 million in capital to increase manufacturing capacity and bring key technologies such as its thermal management products to market. Heat spreaders developed by the firm can reduce hot-spots in mobile phones and other handheld devices, and the funding news follows reports earlier this year that Angstron’s graphene sheets have been qualified for use by a major mobile electronics company.
Thermal interface material: Angstron Materials supplies graphene-based sheets in thicknesses ranging from 5 µm to 40 µm with thermal conductivity between 800 W/m.K and 1700 W/m.K for use in electronic products such as tablets, laptops and flat screen TVs. The foils can also be used for EMI shielding.
Estimates by market analyst IDTechEx suggest that 55% of electronic failures are caused by over-heating, and enhanced thermal interface materials have a major role to play in helping devices to stay cool, perform better and last longer as developers boost their offerings by packing more processing power into increasingly compact form-factors.
“We use the planar alignment of carbon atoms to make a lightweight, flexible thermal foil with up to 1700 W/m.K in-plane thermal conductivity – substantially higher thermal conductivity than copper and offering weight savings for thermal management,” Claire Rutiser, a member of Angstron’s executive team, told TMR+. “Also, we can load thermally conductive nano graphene platelets (NGP) into a matrix – which could be thermoset, thermoplastic or non-curing (for thermal paste).”
Graphene isn’t the only option for device makers and competing thermal management materials include formulations based on silver flakes or silver nano-wires, but there are economic considerations that may favour the use of NGPs. “Silver is subject to significant price fluctuation and future price uncertainty,” Rutiser comments. “Angstron Materials has known input materials pricing and is able to enter into long term supply agreements with end users.”
Graphene has been linked with various big names in portable electronics. In 2011, Apple noted that the use of graphene thermal dissipators goes beyond cooling. Related applications include transferring heat from onboard electronics to the battery to improve runtime, which can be compromised at low temperatures.
Rutiser says that Angstron is ready with scalable production capacity and emphasised that the firm is targeting other sectors in addition to thermal management materials. She’s optimistic that over a 10 year period energy storage will grow to become one of the company’s biggest sources of revenue. Driving this are developments in graphene-wrapped silicon anodes by sister company Nanotek Instruments, which allow fabrication of Li-ion batteries with over 400 Wh/kg, and also materials for supercapacitors.
“Affordable, high-capacity energy storage is critical for the transition to electric vehicles and for grid-stabilization as the percentage of energy derived from renewables increases in the coming decades,” Rutiser explained. “These products have comparatively long qualification times due to reliability testing and industry safety standards.”
Currently, Angstron’s graphene-enhanced products and technologies are linked to five distinct portfolios – thermal management materials, energy storage systems, nanocomposites, transparent conductive films, paints and coatings. “Graphene platelets are inert to most chemical species and offer opportunities to improve barrier coatings against corrosion, chemical attack, or oxygen permeation, “ added Rutiser.
In its latest report on emerging technologies, Lux Research has put the spotlight on opportunities for smart coatings. The firm’s analysis highlights the power of partnerships in translating breakthroughs from the lab to the market, which has implications for start-ups in the field of advanced materials. To find out more, TMR+ spoke with Anthony Schiavo, an analyst at Lux Research and lead author of Surfaces Get Smarter: Scouting Emerging Coatings, Markets and Functionalities.
New roles beyond protection
“Today, coatings can do more than just provide protection,” said Schiavo. “They are finding new roles and replacing other components such as inspection systems.” Examples can be found in the US Navy, which has patented a resin that releases a distinct odour when broken. This feature can be exploited to alert crew members to corrosion and mechanical fatigue in out of sight areas of a ship or aircraft.
The Navy system has been designed with the human nose in mind, but there are automated solutions out there too. Another approach involves coating RFID tags with a conductive layer. “When the coating is damaged, the signal will propagate,” explained Schiavo.
Smart materials as a service
The oil and gas sector is another strong prospect for smart coatings, but as Schiavo points out – performance is only part of the picture. Materials suppliers need to pick the right revenue model to ramp up their business.
“Solutions will be more attractive to potential customers if providers can supply advanced materials and coatings as a service rather than a product,” he said. “Suppliers can lower the barrier to entry by tying the value of their products directly to performance, in this case an improvement in downtime figures, rather than attempting to sell tonnes of material outright in advance.”
Winners in the consumer electronics segment include firms such as P2i, a provider of chemically bonded hydrophobic coatings, which allow device partners to add-value in highly competitive sectors such as the mobile phone market. “The differentiation you get on a raw technology basis can be very short-lived,” commented Schiavo. “Smart coatings help manufacturers to strengthen the appeal of their products.”
Other exciting firms to watch include LiquiGlide and SLIPS Technologies, which are positioned to impact packaging. Like P2i, their value proposition can be communicated in just a few seconds of video or by a quick product demo, which makes it much easier for these companies to pitch their technology to potential partners.
I was in Singapore last week to find out why the Asian city state ranks number seven in the Global Innovation Index – just behind the USA and well ahead of other regional heavyweights such as Hong Kong and Korea. One thing that impressed me in particular was the level of support offered to start-up companies at all stages of their development, largely through a string of initiatives introduced by the government agency SPRING Singapore. “Our goal is to help SMEs to become more resilient through better funding, by providing access to extended business networks and the infrastructure they need,” said Edwin Chow, SPRING’s executive director for innovation and start-ups.
Support network: SPRING Singapore has set up 12 SME Centres to provide business advisory services to enterprises on a range of topics including technology innovation.
Chow is acutely aware that start-ups in materials science need extra support to transfer their ideas to market, since the private investment community is wary of taking on long-term projects where there is no certainty of success. “In materials science it takes more time and more money to develop the initial IP into an income-generating business,” he told me. “For digital start-ups it might take three to five years to reach an IPO, for materials-based companies it can take twice as long.”
That’s why SPRING is investing SGD75m (about £38m) to establish five accelerators focused on clean technology, and advanced manufacturing and engineering – which includes subsectors such as additive manufacturing, robotics, biomaterials and nanotechnology. “Accelerators can act as intermediaries to make riskier propositions more attractive for investors,” said Chow. “With this programme we’re offering the comfort of government backing for a certain length of time.”
SPRING is now inviting proposals from accelerators with proven investment expertise in the high-tech sector, and who will work with the agency to identify and evaluate high-potential start-ups. Accelerators selected through the scheme will be expected to match the funding available from SPRING, with the joint investment capped at SGD 4m for each new business.
One of the selection criteria will be a commitment to work closely with start-ups to shorten their time-to-market. As well as business mentoring and enterpreneurship training, accelerators will be tasked with helping new companies to develop customer networks and to secure the necessary infrastructure and resources. According to Chow, successful accelerators will be able to apply for funding to support these value-added incubation activities.
Interested accelerators can find more information online, and proposals should be sent by 6 August 2015 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Successful applicants will be appointed towards the end of 2015 or early 2016.
The UK welcomed an influx of graphene experts last week as Manchester University’s 200+ researchers working in the field of 2D materials were joined by hundreds more for Graphene Week 2015. The event, now in its 10th year, has grown from a small European workshop into a five-day conference boasting over 600 attendees and pushing the University Place venue to capacity. The scope of the programme has expanded too; hexagonal boron nitride (hBN), molybdenum disulphide (MoS2) and other related 2D materials have joined graphene on the ‘menu’ of structures being explored by developers. Most recently, the conference has been co-ordinated by the Graphene Flagship – a European drive to capitalize on the many opportunities for 2D materials, which launched in October 2013 and has adopted Graphene Week as its annual conference.
Plenary update: Nobel Prize winner Kostya Novoselov briefed the Graphene Week 2015 audience on major developments in the field of 2D materials.
The European Commission (EC) has given graphene and related 2D materials research a huge boost through its Flagship initiative, but as Thomas Skordas, head of the EC’s FET Flagships Unit, reminded the audience during the conference opening – the funding is not a blank cheque for 10 years. The objective is to deliver economic benefits. So far, Graphene Flagship projects have generated 3x more publications compared with the Horizon 2020 average, but to achieve its long term goal the programme needs to capitalize on this research growth.
Connecting with industry
The challenge of taking graphene and related 2D materials from the lab to the market is a focus issue for TMR+ and its sister journal Translational Materials Research (TMR), and we were delighted to be invited to the Flagship’s latest Graphene Connect workshop, co-located with Graphene Week 2015, to join in the discussion.
New facility: the Graphene Connect networking event focusing on investment opportunities was held at the UK’s National Graphene Institute in Manchester.
The Manchester session was focused on investment opportunities in graphene and related 2D materials, and put the spotlight on start-ups and early-stage companies. Fittingly, the workshop took place at the recently opened National Graphene Institute (NGI) – a facility where academia and industry are co-located to promote translation of 2D materials from the lab to the market.
Presenters from the VC community included Achim Hoffman of IP Group. He picked up on the issue of media hype surrounding graphene, which has distorted expectations. One of the key messages from the session was the need to stay focused on the fundamentals such as the market, the technology and the infrastructure. “You’ve got to go back to basics,” summed up MTI’s Mark Rahn, who also spoke at the event.
Rahn presented a snapshot of companies operating in the graphene sector. Today, materials suppliers are putting resource into stepping up the value chain by offering functionalized products and formulations that are easier for customers to evaluate and integrate. “The real hard work is how you get from a good idea to a viable production process,” said Nigel Salter, Managing Director of 2DTech – a start-up supplying graphene nanoplatelets (GNPs).
Other industrial players at the workshop included BGT Materials, a 2D materials venture with a base in the UK and a sister operation in Taiwan. According to its UK manager – Liam Britnell – BGT has developed an environmentally-friendly way to process graphene-oxide (GO). Applications include barrier films for food packaging, which exploits the material’s very low oxygen transmission characteristics.
Hexagonal highlights: the National Graphene Institute’s carbon-black coloured cladding is patterned with graphene-shaped perforations.
Whether it’s packaging or microelectronics, materials firms need to understand their potential markets and make sure that their products and processes are compatible with their target industries. To accelerate this process, Applied Nanolayers (ANL) – which grew out of Leiden University – decided to break the cord from academia early on and moved south to base itself in the heart of the Netherlands’ chip-making ecosystem. The company provides wafer-grown 2D material such as graphene or hBN for a range of device applications.
The final panel discussion of the day, which featured Graphenea, Haydale and Flexenable, highlighted the many different routes for growing and repositioning businesses in the advanced materials sector – topics that TMR will be exploring in more detail through its journal section ‘Policy, funding and business strategy’.
Graphenea began as a supplier of 2D materials for the research community, but the firm’s products also appeal to industry and in 2013 it won investment from Repsol – a multinational with activities upstream and downstream in the oil & gas sector. Most recently, Graphenea has been awarded Euro 2.5 million through the Horizon 2020 SME instrument – a phased programme of support to small-to-medium enterprises – which will allow the San Sebastian headquartered company to further scale-up its production capacity. The firm has a satellite office based in Boston, US, to strengthen its links with MIT and Harvard.
FlexEnable was spun out of Plastic Logic to give the business more freedom to apply its expertise in printing transistors on plastic beyond the display sector. Its activities include consulting services to materials companies.
Meanwhile, back at Graphene Week
There was plenty of industry input at the main conference too with updates from Bosch, IBM and Alcatel Lucent, to name just a few of the big names eyeing up opportunities for 2D materials. TMR+ spoke with IBM’s Shu-Jen Han last year, and the message remains the same in 2015 – RF devices rather than digital logic are a stronger proposition for graphene. Telecomms could be a promising area for the material thanks to graphene’s consistent performance across a wide temperature range, and useful optical properties.
Smart space: The National Graphene Institute features a ‘high-rise wildflower meadow’ designed to improve roof function by providing a green space for people and pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies. For a video tour of the building, including the lab space, stay tuned for a film clip from TMR+’s sister site physicsworld.com [link to video coming soon...].
Alcatel Lucent has been working with partner AMO Aachen to investigate the potential of 2D materials in enabling highly-integrated photonic subsystems. The team has come up with a photodetector featuring CVD-grown graphene on a Si waveguide, which operates in the c-band (wavelength = 1550 nm) to support data rates up to 50 GBit/s.
The next Graphene Connect workshop is scheduled for early 2016 and will explore the topic of biosensors and implants. Graphene Week 2016 will take place in Poland next June.
The University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) is making its next-generation optical fibre available for purchase. By broadening availability, the team aims to accelerate performance, differentiation, adoption and commercialization of optical fibre and photonics-based products.
Specialist optical fibre fabrication and coating. Image credit: University of Southampton
As part of the new service, the ORC will hold a number of research-grade fibres in stock for immediate delivery with the range continually adjusted over time to include cutting-edge designs. Fibres will be supplied for engineering development and research only. Once an application requires volume supply and the market demand is established, the ORC will work with commercial fibre manufacturers to transfer the fibre to production.
Translating research beyond the lab
The announcement gives developers early experience of working with ORC designs in order to evaluate structures from a market perspective and build a commercial case for future products.
IDTechEx’s multi-track conference and exhibition explores the interconnected landscape of printed electronics, wearable technology, energy harvesting, the internet of things (IoT), graphene and 2D materials, 3D printing, and electric vehicles. Collaboration is key to succeeding in materials translation, and for me this was one of the big messages of the 2015 show, which brings together formulation specialists, systems developers, fabrication experts, measurement providers, and customer groups, all under the same roof for two days (or more if you sign-up to masterclasses).
Dialogue between technology providers and end-users helps to resolve uncertainty in emerging fields such as printed and flexible electronics where – i) customers can be unsure about what’s possible and ii) suppliers need guidance on market requirements.
Bringing new technology to market
On day one, speakers from Qualcomm and Flextronics outlined how their firms bring new technology to the market. In Qualcomm’s case, its approach is built on four pillars – i) system R&D leadership, ii) design for manufacturability, iii) supply chain management and iv) customer support and engineering. It’s important not to overlook the final step. “The value proposition is only realized if you can propagate this to the customer,” Stein Lundby (R&D manager at Qualcomm) reiterated to audience.
Qualcomm, which Lundby describes as a ‘surface electronics’ company, is exploring opportunities for a hybrid product combining traditional crystalline based electronics with printed electronic components. Developed with Enfucell – a provider of printed power sources – the device features a 3-axis gyroscope and 3-axis accelerometer together with integrated battery and system electronics packaged in a band-aid style form factor. Users can stick the sensor on items such as golf clubs to determine how new products might improve their game, but this is just one possible scenario.
To navigate markets such as wearables, Flextronics – which focuses on production equipment and know-how – has opened design centres to help customers with product development and new use-cases such as electronic displays for athletic clothing. In his presentation, Keith Churches (head of innovation services at Flextronics) showed how the company brings new ideas to the market by configuring product-specific development networks that link the firm’s expertise with partners such as OEMs, universities and research institutes.
Nanomaterials Directa Plus – which was founded in 2005 and opened its graphene factory in 2014 – used the graphene and 2D materials conference track to talk through its collaboration with Vittoria Industries and highlight early market opportunities for graphene. Dubbed the wonder material, graphene – an ultra-thin layer of carbon – has been shown to have record-breaking electrical, thermal and mechanical properties, but breakthrough results in the lab don’t guarantee commercial success. “You have to be brave to be in the graphene market,” Giulio Cesareo (CEO of Directa Plus) commented.
Full house: interest in graphene and related 2D materials remains strong.
Vittoria uses Directa Plus’ graphene nanoplatelets to formulate bicycle tyres and wheels with enhanced properties such as heat dissipation and lateral stiffness. There are 165 wheel makers in the world, Rudi Campagne (founder of Vittoria Industries) told the audience, and the use of nanomaterials such as graphene is an effective way for Vittoria to differentiate itself from the competition.
Early uses of graphene provide a platform for growth in other sectors by establishing a materials supply chain. Beyond tyres and wheels, Directa Plus is looking at opportunities for graphene in cleaning up contaminated soil and water. In his talk, Cesareo explained that linked graphene platelets have the potential to remove hydrocarbon pollution from lakes, according to test results. Literature from the firm claims that 1 gram of its Graphene Plus sorbent can adsorb up to 80-90 grams of oil – for more details, visit the GEnIuS project website, a programme co-founded by European Union within the Eco-Innovation initiative.
Exhibition: new products launched at the show included Ceradrop’s ‘F-Serie’ multi-material printer.
The discussion then moved on to opportunities for 2D materials in the electronics industry. If graphene does make an impact in this sector it is likely to be driven by novel applications, based on the views of the speakers in the opening session. “Graphene will not replace silicon in standard devices,” commented Guenther Ruhl (lead principal in new materials at Infineon Technologies) during his talk.
Touch screens are also looking unlikely as a big opportunity for graphene. “Graphene transparent conductive films are among the worst performers in a crowded market,” explained Khasha Ghaffarzadeh (head of consulting at IDTechEx). Like Ruhl, he feels that 2D materials could have more impact in new product categories. “The beauty of graphene is that there are many target industries and applications,” Ghaffarzadeh added.
OPV and R2R technology
Analyst events such as the IDTechEx show give attendees a view on tomorrow’s technology today. Two further highlights for me from the keynote presentations were Heliatek’s building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) and Asahi Kasei’s e-beam fabricated seamless roller for printing transistors.
Show venue: Estrel, Berlin
In the afternoon on day one, Martin Pfeiffer (chief technology officer at Heliatek) outlined what he feels is a sweet spot for OPV – active facades. To compete with silicon, OPV has to bring something different, which it can when applications demand flexible and lightweight solutions. He added that the energy payback for an OPV cell can be as little as 3 months, as determined by the EU project dubbed X10D. Pfeiffer revealed that large-scale trials of the firm’s material were now underway in China and Germany on concrete (in Shanghai), PVC membrane (in Berlin) and glass (in Dresden) structures, with another pilot project due to start soon in Singapore on a glass and steel construction.
There were more glimpses of the future on day two when Masayuki Abe of Japanese giant Asahi Kasei – which operates in chemicals, electronics and healthcare sectors – presented his team’s work on seamless roller mold (SRM) technology for roll-to-roll (R2R) printing of sub-micron feature sizes. To make the mold, they rotated a super-smooth (2 nm roughness) roller under an e-beam writer. Moving the roller laterally (as well as rotating it) allows the team to create complex mold patterns. To test the process, Abe’s group used one of its roller molds to print a 200 ppi, 125 micron pitch TFT array. Abe was clearly proud of his team’s results and sees a bright future for the technique. “SRM will bring about the realization of high-resolution printing,” he told the audience.
Europe’s Graphene Flagship has released details of its 6th Graphene Connect workshop, which aims to introduce business angels to graphene and create an arena for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and venture capital (VC) firms to interact.
‘The purpose of the flagship is not to perform research — it’s to bring research into society,’ Helena Theander, a senior member of the Graphene Flagship’s innovation team, told Translational Materials Research (TMR) in a recent article highlighting the need to engage SMEs in materials commercialization. ‘Graphene Connect is a process to get more industry players interested in graphene and related 2D materials.’
This latest installment in the Graphene Connect series coincides with Graphene Week 2015 and will take place in Manchester, UK, on Monday 22 June.
The workshop programme includes -
Presentations by firms operating in the graphene sector.
VC talks on investing in graphene given by industry representatives, followed by a panel discussion.
Matchmaking activities for SMEs and entrepreneurs to meet and interact with the venture capital community and explore business opportunities.
There’s plenty of talk about the hurdles that scientists have to overcome to commercialize their research, and while there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the scale of the challenge, it’s important to celebrate the success stories too. The Royal Society strikes a positive note in its recent video featuring Nanoco, Solexa and ARM, which offers advice on translating technology from the lab to the market.
The speakers are well placed to comment on the journey from discovery to devices, and each of them discusses different pieces of the puzzle, which includes raising money.
In the clip, Paul O’Brien, a professor at the University of Manchester and co-founder of Nanoco, emphasizes that the trickiest part to get funded is the step between invention and product development. To grab the attention of potential backers, it helps to think like one.
“The pull for the investor is the potential for a market,” O’Brien explains in the video. “So, if you can point towards a market like displays and say that [your product] could be in every house, in every country in the world, then they start to look interested.”
- You can find more videos from the Royal Society on its YouTube page
For additional case studies, check out the following articles from the journal Translational Materials Research -