The NGA Graphene Innovation Summit – An Observers View

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The NGA Graphene Innovation Summit – An Observers View

The Graphene Innovation Summit took place between the 29th-31st October and included an advisory board meeting, executive sessions and two graphene-packed days for the official conference, all hosted by the National Graphene Association (NGA).

What was the focus of the Summit?

It goes without saying that the focus of the conference, like that of the NGA itself, was to discuss and find out different avenues on how to commercialize graphene. What soon became apparent, was that there were a few elephants in the room about graphene commercialization, namely issues that require addressment if graphene is going realize its full potential and live up to its own generated hype. Many lessons have been learned from the carbon nanotube days, and whilst that is finally making a resurgence in some parts of the world, falling into the same trap is not an option for graphene. As such, three critical areas were discussed throughout the conference, be it in the board meetings, speaker presentations or just in general from the attendees. These, in short, are:

  • Standardisation of what graphene is and how people should be careful with terminology.
  • Issues surrounding graphene quality (from both competing companies and from different batches of the same company).
  • The fact that the US is behind other parts of the world which are much better funded from government sources

Let’s start with the first point. It was discussed in great length by many people about what graphene is and how it should be classified. It feeds into the second point about quality issues as it became apparent that many people pass of graphite as ‘multi-layered’ graphene (or graphene nanoplatelets), or just ‘graphene’ in many cases. Another issue surrounded passing off graphene oxide and reduced graphene oxide as ‘graphene’. The chemical structure and properties of both materials, whilst they are great for some applications, are very different to those exhibited by graphene itself. Such discrepancies about what people classify graphene to be has led to issues with quality and the functionality of the purchased graphene when implemented into certain applications. Not knowing what you are buying, is a big issue and led many people to talk about a new classification system for graphene.

Now, onto quality. Determining what graphene itself is, is only part of the issue. It became clear that many people have had bad dealings with graphene companies, where the quality not only varies drastically from company to company, but can also vary from batch to batch by the same company. This is a fundamental issue holding back the commercialization of graphene, and until it is addressed at a national level, larger companies are going to have issues with implementing it into high-tech products because of the ambiguity of how well it will work- currently, it would be pot luck as to whether the graphene batch would work or not, leading to a lack of confidence towards the whole industry. This was a major talking point and one which both the NGA and many companies agreed needs to be sorted as soon as possible.

It was also brought up by some of the speakers, which filtered into various conversations around the conference, that the US is currently behind Europe and Asia in terms of government funding and graphene development. It was established that the US has only had $250,000 in funding. This is compared with over 1 billion Euro’s in Europe via the Graphene flagship and $500,000 in Singapore. Further advancements in terms of getting the community together to help push graphene research (manufacturing and applications) and to gain a voice in congress for further funding are required. Luckily, the NGA is looking to do just this and help to facilitate funding and investments for graphene companies and it became apparent that lobbying congress is high on the agenda for the NGA.

The NGA meeting

The NGA advisory board meeting was a great chance for the board members to meet and discuss ideas, as many had never met before in person. The NGA has established itself as the leading organisation to effectively aid in commercializing graphene. The great thing to see, was that everyone, independent of their background, company affiliation or location, came together to discuss industry associated problems and how graphene can be commercialized.

Whilst the focus of the conference became around standardization and issues of graphene quality, it was actually here that those topics were first brought to attention and discussed. In effect, the advisory board meeting laid a platform for the rest of the conference.

Talks between Kevin Seddon (CEO, NGA) and Eric Donsky (CEO, Axium Nano) about the meeting resulted in a further discussion about how future meetings should be set up. Whilst it was a great moment for the collection of so many graphene-focused minds to come together, upon talking with Eric, he felt that there was too many in the room (although it was fine for the first meeting) and that a more effective discussion could be had by having 4-7 leading members of the advisory board to sit down and discuss the issues of commercialization.

Many might think that it could render the whole advisory board useless if only a few are involved, however, a plan for this was included. Eric suggested that the advisory board (for future meetings) should separate into teams and communicate their discussions to a ‘team leader’. The team leader could then communicate the ideas of each group in a smaller meeting, so that everyone’s voices are heard. An interesting proposal and is something that could be a good option for future meetings, especially if the advisory board expands.

Day 1 of the Summit

Zina started proceedings through a short speech and showcased how much the association has achieved since its official launch 6 months and included quips about how Steve Rogers called her crazy in Yiddish for attempting the conference in such a short timeframe and a round of applause for the board members. The conference was also much better attended than the association initially thought when they started advertising.

“We were supposed to be a national conference and it ended up being an international conference”- Zina Cinker

Ed took to the stage to thank everyone for attending and told everyone how he is not a scientist but an opportunist and if you started talking technical to him, he wouldn’t understand. Ed injected a lot of light hearted humour into his speech and was a great opener for what was a technically minded day ahead. The highlight did come from Ed mentioning about his first encounter in Nashville with Kari Hjelt, where Kari had googled Ed and found a piece somewhere where Ed had described himself as a “tambourine shaker” (for those who are interested, this is the article). There were some more serious notes though, especially surrounding how everyone needs to join the association to help with all of the projects that the NGA intends to run. Ed also mentioned about the formation of the American Graphene Institute to help with legislation and structure, and a graphene venture fund to help people develop ideas.

 “I’m an opportunist and proud”– Ed Meek

After Zina’s and Ed’s speech, the first keynote speakers took to the stage.

Keynote Speakers

Kari Hjelt is the head of Innovation at the Graphene Flagship and produced a presentation showcasing what is possible with government funding and how Europe is distributing 1 billion Euros of funds to over 150 academic institutions and companies in 23 countries. Kari even told us about how the King of Sweden has made some of his own graphene. Kari showcased the various roadmaps for the different types of projects that the Graphene Flagship is funding and the aim is to bring the work from production to applications.

The complete roadmap is currently being composed and should be published soon. As it stands, it is 500 pages long, although it is thought than it will be reduced at the time of publication. The roadmap will cover a wide variety of topics, including breaking down each application area, how graphene can be used, what the opportunities are, what the strengths of graphene are and what the threats are. I will not say any more on the speech, to avoid revealing information about what will be published. But, in short, the Graphene Flagship is far ahead of the US in terms of large scale funding and graphene development, with many interesting projects to come. The roadmap should be a good read when it is published.

“We have different material properties and the science, then we have the product and innovation space. What we need to do is to bring these two together.” – Kari Hjelt

The second key note speaker was Antonio Castro Neto, who is the pioneer behind Singapore’s impressive graphene (and other 2D materials) research. Antonio is both the Director of the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials (National University of Singapore) and the Founder of 2D Materials Pte Ltd (2DM). The centre has also three Nobel Prize laureates in their scientific advisory committee and 2DM has Sir Konstantin Novoselov (2010 Nobel Prize for graphene) in its board. Antonio really set the tone for the conference in terms of what graphene actually is and that anything above 10 layers is not graphene, it is graphite, for practical purposes; and the current classification of few-layered and multi-layered graphene and graphene nanoplatelets is ‘bogus’– it has been shown that a definitive number of layers cannot be confirmed for a sample and instead people should classify the number of graphene layers as a statistical distribution.

Antonio, like many others, also highlighted the poor-quality standards from graphene manufacturing companies, with such discrepancies occurring between samples that their research has been affected as a result. Antonio stated that there is nothing more to learn about the basic science of graphene and effort should now be situated towards the applications and understanding the fundamentals of other 2D materials.

“Graphene is not an amorphous material, it is a crystal. Graphene oxide is not a crystal, it is an amorphous material. Graphene oxide has nothing to do with graphene.”– Antonio Castro Neto

Antonio is an advocate for graphene and many other 2D materials and believes that whilst graphene is the most commercially viable 2D material, the other 2D materials have much more interesting properties. Antonio also presented the impressive impact that Singapore has on graphene research, with Singapore possessing the 7th highest publication impact in the world and 13th highest number of patents in the world. By normalizing the GDP with population (5 million people), Singapore also comes highest out of every country in terms of investment per capita.

The data shown by Antonio regarding Singapore was impressive to say the least and shows what can be done if the right kind of investment is present. It was also mentioned that the graphene market in China is booming. Again, I have word from Antonio that his team are going to publishing a paper on some of the content from the conference, so that information will have to wait until another time.

“Graphene is just one of many ordered materials and actually there are other materials which are more interesting than graphene, from an electronic structure perspective. Graphene is the first wave and there will be many waves after graphene.” – Antonio Castro Neto

5 Minute Pitches

The 5-minute pitches were a chance for many people to briefly showcase an element of their research or what their company does, depending on their academia-industry affiliation. It also enabled people to pitch their company to a room containing potential investors. Fourteen people were meant to take to the stage, however, a couple did not show, and I know it was disappointing for Ed when the ‘graphene smart bra’ pitch was not going ahead, as he was really looking forward to the ‘presentational’ aspect of that talk!

Andrea Lazzarino from Deewear presented their interesting graphene t-shirt product in the form of a marketing video. As someone who does elements of marketing, I could appreciate the video product and the t-shirt struck a great chord with everyone who visited the stall throughout the conference. It was one of a few interesting graphene-based products from the weekend.

Jounghoon Lee (Standard Graphene) also took to the stage for a practical demonstration of their reduced graphene oxide water filter membrane. It was interesting to see the filter work in real-time and be incorporated into household filters that we see every day. A dye was used to differentiate between dirty and clean water and it can provide one litre of water for less than 10 cents. The filter can also eradicate bacteria and viruses. Personally, I have seen a lot of academic papers come out recently on the subject of graphene filter membranes, so I’m glad that the demonstration was practical rather than a presentational overview. I personally think that Standard Graphene’s other products, namely the 5.5 kg bike and graphene oxide-coated frying pans were more interesting, and as a whole, are producing a great range of graphene-based products.

 “I originally developed this water filter to help people in Africa and South-East Asia and Parts of China where freshwater is needed but there is not infrastructure for tap water”- Jounghoon Lee

The team from Hexalayer presented their case as to how graphene can boost the capacity of lithium ion batteries by up to six times (but no direct comparison of values was given, making it hard to validate the claims). The talk demonstrated that they are only replacing one part of the cell and replacing the graphite with graphene. Personally, I have seen at least 100 papers where researchers have replaced graphite with graphene in some form or another to enhance the properties of a cell, and there are companies out there which also do this and are looking to commercialize both anodes as opposed to one. So, whilst what they are doing might be a nice advancement, personally, it didn’t wow me as I think there is a lot there out there in this area and the talk should have presented something more significant.

Eric Donsky from Axium Nano talked about quality and cost of graphene (and nanomaterials in general) before talking about their ability to form graphene in a reaction lasting only 60 seconds through a specialist electrodeposition process. Axium Nano can currently produce graphene at sub-$50 per kilogram into tuneable formats, such as fibres and coatings. They are also involved in battery research and can produce cells with a line speed that is 40 times greater than current Li-ion cells.

Alongside the above, Nanomedical diagnostics presented their Agile R100 product which is a personal assay system for label-free analysis of small molecules; Brian Kennedy (Kennedy Labs) told us about the graphene DigiKey challenge and how they use it to find collaborators and percolate interest in Digikey’s customers for their 50+ products. They have so far given out $300,000 in cash to industry and academia for collaboration projects to date; Jeff Draa from Grolltex showcased the possibilities available using their CVD graphene and how they are in the process of reducing the cost to less than $10 per square meter; and Adam Small (Urbix Resources) talked about their environmentally friendly high voltage supercapacitors that are gaining interest from aerospace and defence industries, and are being created from their vertically integrated approach that produces 99.99% flake graphite at 1/12 of the standard cost and use 1/20 of the energy of standard processes.

There were also many academic talks from Yury Stebunov on graphene oxide biosensors, Piran Kidambi on graphene membranes for dialysis and Sanju Gupta who also looked at a new graphene-based water desalination membrane. Whilst these talks were interesting from an academic point of view, the pitches from a company perspective were more aligned to the ethos of the conference and presented a lot more for potential investors and those who were looking to learn more about the industry.

Speed Networking

The speed networking was an interesting component of the Summit and one which many people found beneficial. The networking involved a couple of long tables with people facing each other and conversing for two minutes before one side of the table shifted down a seat in a given direction.

For myself, and for many that I spoke to about the speed networking, it was a success. Many people spoke to people that wouldn’t otherwise approach and many found new business or valuable contacts. For many people, it was a chance to meet their fellow attendees as well as evaluate whether there were any business opportunities or mutual interest partnerships (which could be discussed in more detail during the evening reception).

Like with any new idea, there were some minor hiccups, but this was mainly due to the two-minute timing. Many people either didn’t hear the bell or were too deep into conversation that they didn’t move along, limiting the time with the next person. However, this was a minor detail and the speed networking idea overall was a huge success and one that many people said they would like to see at future NGA events.

Day 2 of the Summit

Due to a heavy night of drinking on many of the conference goer’s parts, the sponsor talk had to be postponed until midday when there was an almost full attendance of attendees.

Keynote Speakers

Ahmed Busnaina is the Director of Research at the NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and was the keynote speaker for the day. Rather than discuss his own research, Ahmed talked about a study surrounding nanomodular materials (materials that can be put together to make a greater structure), with a focus on graphene and other 2D materials, from when they went to areas with state-of-the-art graphene facilities. The team visited many areas in Asia and Europe to assess their funding and state-of-the-art levels and compare them against the US.

“Without manufacturing of these nanomaterials, there will be no applications. If there are no applications, chances for funding and for commercialization is not going to be very strong”- Ahmed Busnaina

One interesting point made by Ahmed is that of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have long had a problem with orientation, alignment and dispersion and this has caused a lack of usage at the commercial level. Many lessons from carbon nanotubes about overhype can be learned for graphene, however, it appears that they are making a resurgence in China. Carbons nanotubes are now being employed in touch screen phones throughout China at a commercial level.

The publication is over 200 pages long and contains a lot of information about each specific country and the universities involved. The take home message from the whole study is that in areas such as China (and some other Asian countries), the collaboration between the universities and the private companies is much greater than the US. It was also presented that the funding levels in Asia for graphene, carbon nanotubes and other 2D materials are much higher for both academia and industry, leading to a greater synergy between the different research levels and production processes. In short, the US has some catching up to do.

Panel Discussion

This was one of a few panel and roundtable discussions from the conference, but was the most interesting as it focused on the graphene supply market and featured 4 CEOs from the UK and USA- Ray Gibbs (Haydale), Neill Ricketts (Versarien), Edward Chan (Angstron Materials) and Elena Polyokova (Graphene 3D Lab).

The panel was hosted by Brian Kennedy. There were many questions asked, but to avoid writing a large amount of waffle on the area, I have focused on a few questions which were a) very useful in terms of the context of the discussion, or b) questions where everyone had a good input.

The first question went to Ray to discuss how large the US graphene market is today. Simply put, Ray stated it is as large as the application and people should talk about the application market, which is trillions of dollars. Ray also suggested that the far east is moving very quickly and will be 40% of the market, Europe 20% and the US (when it reaches its potential) will be the other 40%. Edward also suggested that the Asian market will dominate, but the focus for the US is the margins and adhering to standards. Edward also mentioned that whilst the Asian market is not affected by standards, it will come at some point and if the US is ahead in this field it will prove to be advantageous in the long run. Neill suggested that the market will also increase quickly once validated test results come through for various applications and suggested that the market is still in its infancy. Elena also stated that graphene supermarket has the anticipated ratio of customers is currently in the above percentages, so is a good estimate for future markets.

A lot of the panel also told the audience that a lot of their current customer base is still in academia. Because there is no ‘killer’ application and the applications are wide open at this point, more research is coming out of academia than industry, so more of the current client base is in academia. There does appear to be a lot of potential growth for the Li-ion battery industry, but to convince the larger companies that utilize Li-ion batteries (in technologies such as cell phones) to try a new avenue or material, requires a lot of patience, data and luck.

The team also discussed the implication of standards and how companies should use an outside body to certify the materials being sold. The launching of ISO definitions will help the marketplace, but consumers need to know what they are buying. All the panel stated that manufacturing companies need to have an outside certification, accreditation or quality controls to become a trustworthy supplier. It was also brought up that a lot of suppliers have the same problem, that consumers don’t want to buy powders, they want them as a ready-to-go pre-dispersed masterbatch– This can be a time-consuming process for companies as each polymeric matrix that graphene is dispersed into must be specifically tailored in-house for each individual masterbatch. The key for companies to be successful, as discussed, is to work very closely with the end customer and produce an optimized solution for their individual problems.

The shipping cost issue was also raised by the whole panel and the key to obtaining a worldwide supply chain was to set up operations in each region of the world- Asia, Europe and the US etc. Elena stated that to ship large barrels of masterbatches costs more than it sells for and is one of the reasons as to why Haydale and other companies are establishing themselves in various locations around the world.

“Graphene needs to be produced where you are using it. We need to be aware that we need to be where the customers are”- Neill Ricketts

An Afternoon of Talks

There were many talks in the afternoon that were split into different rooms, meaning that only some could be attended. The topics ranged from new commercial production developments to new academic graphene research and presentations about how new start-ups were doing in today’s marketplace. For the sheer number, and split room nature of the talks, I’m just going to cover one academic and one industry talk, otherwise you could be reading this article all day (if you have made it this far, thank you and well done– you must have a great reading concentration).

Ahmed Al-Ostaz, a Professor at Ole Miss involved with the new graphene centre, presented a more academic approach in his talk and talked about the role of graphene as a multifunctional material. Ahmed detailed the various applications that his group has been involved in (too many to list) and how the focus of the new centre is going to focus on a wide range of these. On the application front, Ahmed also detailed how the incorporation of graphene into other materials has yielded solar cells with 50-100 times greater efficiencies, semiconductors that are 50-100 times faster, aircraft which are 80% lighter and composites that are more multifunctional. The speech included many different examples of composite research were graphene is being implanted and is adding value to the material in some way. The take home message from the speech was there is a large amount of potential when using graphene as an additive material for a large scope of applications.

“We are not interested in our group in manufacturing the graphene, but rather into the application of the graphene and what would be the added value to the application using graphene”- Ahmed Al-Ostaz

Raquel Gonzalez from Graphene Tech showcased the age-old problem of the bridging (or lack of!) between early stage academic research and commercially ready products. Raquel explained the areas where they have personally found problems in bridging the two and the developmental stages which they are at. She also showcased many of the graphene products they are currently producing (and those which are in the works), which are mainly of the conflictingly-named few-layer and multi-layered graphene varieties. The issue highlighted is the central region of the research chain, where academics have done all they can and where it is too early for companies to get involved, and is often a black hole where research get lost, known as the ‘valley of death’. It was suggested that more synergies are needed between the two, something which was brought up many times during the conference and is an age-old problem throughout the sciences.

“There is a valley of death between the fundamental of science and the development of final applications and market confidence”- Raquel Gonzalez

Other findings from around the Summit

Aside from the talks, I also had the pleasure of meeting many people and had a good chat about what they were doing in the graphene space. Here are some of the highlights.

First off, I had the chance to have some extensive conversations with Nick Cipparo, the CTO and Co-Founder of Celtig. Whilst I had many conversations throughout the Summit, the most interesting came (indirectly) when Nick was talking with Eric Donsky during the luncheon break. The conversation revolved around each other products and manufacturing processes, with Nick stating that they were in the process of trying to bring the price of graphene (that they produce) down to 50 cents per gram. Future goals aimed at bringing the price down to 25 cents per gram. As with everything in the conference, questions were asked about the quality from batch to batch, with Nick stating that quality is high in every batch. If the team at Celtig can bring down graphene prices to this level, it could help with the commercialization of graphene as the price would be more attractive for buyers. One to watch in my opinion.

I also had the pleasure of speaking to a few people on the Canadian graphene scene. Whilst the field in Canada doesn’t appear to be as prolific, I had many conversations with Paul Beasant from Nova Graphene who are in the process of obtaining funding for 6 manufacturing plants across Canada, USA and either Ireland or the UK. Aside from producing graphene, the team are currently producing graphene composite products using 3D printing technology. I even had the chance to see the products for myself, and the lightweight and robust nature of the products was impressive. If done right (and investment comes along), Nova Graphene could be a great player in the Canadian graphene market, in terms of both graphene production and end-user products.

The final thing to comment on from around the conference, is the formation of a new local graphene group, known as the New Hampshire Graphene Council. Founded by Luke Somers, and not to be confused with a small group known as ‘The Graphene Council’, Luke envisions a local hub where investors and companies can become acquainted. Similar to the ethos of the NGA, the Council aims to attract investors to local graphene companies and grow the local economy and jobs market as a result. The initiative is interesting, because such groups could be utilized across the US, in conjunction with the NGA, to create local graphene hubs where investors could contact the specific state group to gain local knowledge from local experts. A decentralized system if you will, with the NGA being the facilitator and central association.

From general discussions around the conference, it appears on the whole that the graphene and graphite industries are expanding, and it was great talking to the likes of Brian Kennedy (Kennedy Labs), Paul Ferguson (Great Lakes Graphite) and Jiao Yu (Fanglin Minerals) and hearing about how their companies are currently expanding.

A look to the future

The future looks bright. There was a great camaraderie between companies, researchers and the graphene community in general to work together in the pursuit of graphene commercialization. Many issues were discussed with everyone looking to help to solve them together, using the NGA as a facilitating body to bring standardisation, high quality and further growth efforts to the US graphene industry. Even as the conference went on, people stopped referring to multi-layered graphene, graphene oxide and the other various derivatives as ‘graphene’ within their talks and showcased a mutual understanding that this should be the norm going forward.

Growth of high quality companies in the industry is going to be a good thing and is what will help to spearhead the standardisation of graphene, because at some point those who don’t adhere to high standards will be left behind. In short, the more growth and expansion in the industry, the better.

The future looks great in terms of the association and future conferences. The new initiatives and projects that the NGA looks to implement could help to fund and commercialize graphene in the US, especially as members of the advisory board have agreed to take an active role in helping. For those who missed the conference, the next conference has been scheduled for next May in Las Vegas and Ed Meek has assured us all that the conference will be starting at midday, just in case everyone has little too much fun.

In short, the conference was a success, and I for one, look forward to the next event.

By Liam Critchley, an NGA Advisory Board Member and Specialist Freelance Nanotechnology Writer

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