Chemically-functionalised graphene coatings can help deliver a future of smart infrastructure, able to create valuable insights about how it’s being used. Dr Phillip Aitchison, Head of R&D at Imagine Intelligent Materials, explains some of the possibilities.

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. 

BB: Phil, what can you tell us about the new project, for which you received a grant through the Transurban Innovation Grants Program?

PA: The sensing textiles we are developing are already being used under large infrastructure, like water reservoirs and mining waste ponds. These have been further developed into real-time sensors for pressure and water that can be used for structural health monitoring and more functional applications such as traffic monitoring in roads.

BB: And longer-term, where might this head?

PA: We can then take it further. An electrically conducting network under the road can be used for communications, either vehicle to infrastructure or vehicle to vehicle via the road. Taking it even further again opens up the possibility of energy recovery for powering those communications and other signals and low energy applications. You can do all sorts of interesting things once you’ve got electrically-conductive roads.

BB: A focus on pressure sensors for now, though?

PA: The current project is specifically targeted at putting a graphene-enhanced geosynthetic into the road to be a pressure sensor as the very first stage of smart roads. We’ll take it through and show that this is actually feasible and identify the technical hurdles that need to be overcome to make it commercially applicable. The goal is to have an installation in an actual motorway by mid next year.

BB: You’re engaged in a few collaborative projects e.g. smart composites and the CRC-P effort. What can you say about manufacturers’ willingness to link up with Imagine IM’s graphene expertise?

PA: So far the experience has been very positive. Everybody believes that smart composite materials have value. The big questions everyone in industry has are ‘what will it cost?’, ‘how complicated is it?’ and ‘how will it be implemented?’ So we are working our way through those solutions with a number of different commercial partners because they can see the value. It just needs to be demonstrated to them before they will commit to taking it to market. First we prove the concepts in the lab, but then we must demonstrate prototypes and a pilot stage manufacturing process. At the same time we prepare all the economics to show that the technology can get out of the lab and into the real-world situation where there’s real value to someone.

BB: Could you give me a comment on functionalising and adapting graphene from one application to another?

PA: We try and minimise the diversity between them. Graphene ain’t graphene, and each application requires different forms of graphene, either in the chemistry of the graphene itself or in the way it’s delivered. The imgne® X3 used for leak detection in geotextiles has been modified for use as a pressure sensor. What we don’t do is try to reinvent the wheel every single time. It’s about adapting to changing materials, changing conditions and changing processes, but we don’t go away and start with a blank sheet of paper every time. If it requires a blank sheet of paper, it’d better be a very good opportunity.

BB: Tell us about your presentation on the 17th

PA: It’s going to be around the ‘internet of smart materials’. These offer unique opportunities to monitor, pressure, strain, water and temperature in ways that have not been feasible up until now due to cost and complexity. Dimiter Nedialkov and I will be co-presenting it. There’ll be a demonstration of our pressure sensing technology and an explanation of how it can be used in a case study of coal seam gas waste storage tanks. It’s not about the graphene, it’s not about the textiles, it’s about how it’s applied and extracting the information from it. It’s not that hard to make a conductive textile, but how you get meaningful and useful information out of it is something else again. Smart materials also raise a number of questions about how they interact with the IoT. I’ll examine some of those questions.

BB: What’s your comment on the importance of replicability and QA if graphene is to be widely adopted?

PA: Anything manufactured at scale needs to be made replicably. If you can’t make it reliably and repeatedly, you can’t use it. It’ll never get commercial acceptance. If you actually want to sell anything of any value, then it has to be replicable. This is not as obvious as it might seem, because it’s a new research material. Nearly everybody working with graphene is at the research stage, and they do not focus on replicability, they show possibility. The possibilities are amazing, but only those that can be manufacturable and replicable and cost-effective are the ones that are going to succeed.

This is an edited version of an interview with Dr Phil Aitchison, Head of R&D at Imagine Intelligent Materials. His presentation at the August 17 Internet of Industrial Materials Conference 2017 is titled “Product Development Toward Leak Monitoring”. For more information on the conference, click here.