Ionic Industries and applying graphene to two of the world’s biggest problems

Every day in the lead up to the Internet of Industrial Materials Conference 2017 on August 17th we will be featuring conversations that Brent Balinski had with the presenters.

Ionic Industries has chosen to focus on two of the many exciting areas of potential for graphene: energy storage and water. The company’s Simon Savage, tells us why they’re exciting, and about developing novel technology in Australia.

BB: We saw that you got a mention in The Australian the other day. Good for you guys.

SS: We did indeed. That kind of thing is pretty big for us. It’s important to get a bit of coverage for a public unlisted entity, as we don’t have a lot of ways of engaging with our many shareholders and stakeholders.

BB: There seemed to be a lot of excitement in graphene in 2010 and after that, but since then it’s been hard to get journalists interested.

SS: Every time there’s a new breakthrough there’s a fair bit of press and on the internet generally there’s a lot of coverage about graphene. I think people are interested when there are new applications, but graphene companies in and of themselves are not that interesting.

BB: I think people are interested in breakthroughs but not in the big space between the lab and the marketplace.

SS: Indeed. And another thing I find is that people sort of see graphene as one thing, or they talk about “the graphene industry”. Actually, what we’re talking about is a material that has such wide-ranging applications and such a vast potential impact on every aspect of our lives it’s more than just an industry or just a particular material. It’s kind of like the way we talk of the difference between the bronze and the steel age.

BB: It looks like you’ve chosen to focus on two very promising areas for graphene – energy storage and water storage. Tell me about this and what you’ve developed.

SS: The first thing I should say is our strength and our expertise is in the fields of graphene and graphene oxide in particular. So, we will work on whatever applications we need to. It just so happens at the moment we’ve got a couple of applications for that technology and that materials science in water treatment and energy storage. The reasons we have chosen to focus on those two is because they have the greatest potential for impact across very large and potentially valuable markets. On the water and wastewater treatment specifically, what we have got is a nanofiltration membrane. You can use nanofiltration membranes for any number of things – food and beverage processing, pharmaceuticals, gas separation. It’s just that we, with our partner CleanTeQ, have chosen to focus on water and wastewater treatment.

The idea is that we’ll put all of these technologies together to create a holistic water and wastewater treatment offering. The graphene oxide nanofiltration membrane in that context will be used, at least in the first instance, for removal of organic material from water. We’re talking about industrial scale water and wastewater treatment, not small-scale or consumer solutions. The thing that these membranes do better, or should be able to do better once we have them produced at scale, is that they will have much higher flux than existing polymer membranes or ceramic membranes, which means that it will take about one-tenth the amount of energy to force the water through them. So, what that in practice means is you’ll be able to run water through these membranes at about one atmosphere of pressure. That means a lot less energy required to do the water filtration and a lot lower maintenance and servicing costs. Graphene oxide also has very high mechanical strength, which again reduces maintenance and servicing costs. The other very important thing about graphene is that it’s biocompatible. It’s carbon. So, when you’re using it in water filtration applications that should help make it safer, help get it through regulatory approvals much more easily.

BB: What will your presentation cover at The Internet of Industrial Materials Conference?

SS: I’ll be speaking on graphene for energy storage. It is about our use of graphene for our graphene micro-planar supercapacitors. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so we just call them our graphene supercapacitors. This technology is very likely to be the next generation of energy storage technology, once we move past chemical batteries. Even ten years ago Elon Musk – who has an extraordinary commitment to lithium ion technology, as we’ve seen with the Gigafactory and the different applications he’s been using Lithium ion in, including vehicles and Powerwalls – even then he was saying the next breakthrough in electric vehicles will not be in battery technology but in supercapacitors. I think it’s widely acknowledged the next generation of energy storage will be supercapacitor batteries. And the technology that we have now is at the very forefront of that wave of innovation.

Supercapacitors aren’t a new thing and are currently used in a lot of different contexts – public transportation, in buses, elevators – there are a lot of different applications for them. The problem with them is in order to use them as an energy storage device you have to use them in a very large volume. It’s okay if you want to use them in a bus where you can fill the whole floor of the bus with supercapacitors. What we’ve been able to do though with graphene, because it’s a two-dimensional material, is create supercapacitors on a much smaller scale. And what that means is that we are now able to store as much energy in a supercapacitor device as you could in a lithium ion battery at the same volume, and that’s today. That’s now.

The additional advantages of using supercapacitors over batteries are that they take very little time to charge and discharge. So, you can charge them up almost instantaneously – a couple of minutes, tops. And they discharge very quickly, which mean you can get a lot of power from them, very quickly, if you want to. The other thing is they are very safe. Graphene itself conducts electricity at pretty much the speed of light, which means there’s no resistance in it and it doesn’t generate heat. You’ve seen all these issues that they’ve had in lithium ion, they’re talking about people having to build separate fire bunkers around the house in order to house the lithium ion batteries that they want to use with solar panel arrays or wind or any kind of renewable energy at the local level. That wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement with supercapacitors.

BB: So that is the tone of your speech for the event?

SS: I’d like to speak a little about the markets that I think these technologies will be used in. I don’t think we’ll go from lithium ion batteries to supercapacitors overnight. There will be a transition and a maturation of this technology, probably over a longer period than most people expect. Lithium ion batteries have been around for 25 years now and they’re only just starting to use them in electric vehicles and bulk storage applications. History tells us that it takes a while for these technologies to be adopted.  I don’t think it’ll take 25 years, but it’s not going to happen overnight either. I want to talk a little bit about those markets and of the applications and I would like to talk a little about the business as well: how we go about conducting our research and the various challenges that we face.

I’d also like to speak about the research and development environment in Australia, our progress toward becoming a technology driven economy in the “Internet of Things” era.  In particular, it’s important that we recognise how far behind we are compared to other countries in our region on innovation and, if we want to take advantage of the $19 trillion IoT industry, then we’ll need political and economic solutions to the challenges we face.

BB: Could I get your comment on being a graphene business in Australia; do investors have the attention span, in your experience, for something that takes some development and takes some time to reach the product stage? Has it been hard to raise funds?

SS: It’s been difficult, certainly, although not quite as dire as some previous coverage has suggested. We’ve just undertaken a rights issue, and we have 450 different people submit, take up their rights in Ionic. That’s quite broad-based support for an unlisted entity. The majority of those were retail investors – small mum and pop investors, so I think there is an appetite for high-tech investing. I think a couple of other factors also play into that. There’s an appetite for ethical investing and high-impact investing, such as the things we’re doing – solutions for energy storage and water filtration.  These are solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems.

Also, I think there has been a lot of talk in recent years about Australia being the clever country and the need to really expand our technology economy. We’re not going to be a country built around mining forever.

All those things combined will lead to a greater appetite for, and a better understanding of, the type of company that Ionic is and more generally for technology companies that have longer lead times and longer times between outset and first revenues. I would also point out that there have been a few really successful Australian technology companies. They have had long lead times. So yes, in short, difficult, but certainly not impossible, and I think it’s going to get easier.

BB: Could I please get your point of view on the importance of standards and replicability of graphene supply? What are things like and what do things need to be like?

SS: Yeah! That’s a very good question. At the moment, graphene is such a new material. First created 12, 13 years ago, Nobel Prize six or seven years ago. We still don’t have a sound and common understanding of what it is. People might say ‘Who cares what it is? As long as we know what it does, then that’s all we need.’ That’s actually not true. Take for example our water and wastewater treatment applications, at some point for a water treatment product you’re going to have to go and get regulatory approval. A government somewhere is going to want to know the technology you’re using is safe and isn’t going to be poisoning people. In order to do that, they’re going to have to introduce some regulations around it. If we can’t actually describe what graphene is, how can they possibly regulate it? So, we need that standardisation and common understanding of what these materials are and how they’re used, just so we can properly manage the applications and create a level of assurance around what we’re doing, and that we are acting safely and in the best interests of our end use customers.

This is an edited version of an interview with Simon Savage, Ionic Industries’ Managing Director. His presentation at the August 17 Internet of Industrial Materials Conference 2017 is titled “Graphene For Energy Storage”. For more information on the conference, click here.