Bronwyn Fox talks about the current tipping point for graphene research, and why there’s a real opportunity now for Australian academics and manufacturers.

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

Professor Bronwyn Fox heads Swinburne University’s Manufacturing Futures Research Institute, “strategically positioned at the intersection of design, business, engineering and science”. She provides context about the current tipping point for graphene research, and why there’s a real opportunity now for Australian academics and manufacturers.

 BB: Please tell me about what you’ll be saying at the event

 BF: The Manufacturing Futures Research Institute is Australia’s first institute with a specific focus on Industry 4.0. So we are really into the digital transformation of manufacturing processes, and we’re working with companies from a diverse range of areas on manufacturing processes. We’re interested in how you manufacture rather than what it is that you’re manufacturing. But having said that, one of the things that Klaus Schwab identified in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, is the convergence of smart materials and smart processes. So for us, graphene is incredibly important as a smart material and we’re really excited about how graphene will intersect with these new, next-generation, smart manufacturing processes.

BB: Further than that, as a materials scientist, why is exciting to be involved with graphene right now?

BF: In 2010 when the Nobel Prize was awarded for graphene and in the intervening seven years, there’s been a lot of fundamental research conducted on graphene. But now we’re at the tipping point where we’re starting to see the translation of that research into a commercial environment, and we’re starting to see products and processes involving graphene. So for me, that’s the most exciting time for any materials science: where you see that translation into the marketplace. And to be at the forefront of that, working with Imagine IM on that, at this particular moment in time, is an incredibly exciting opportunity and we’re thrilled to be a part of that.

BB: You obviously have a vast background in carbon fibre composites. Carbon fibre was discovered a long time and took a while to be integrated into industrial processes and to create real value. Is there anything to learn from that journey and for what graphene needs to be ready for primetime?

BF: We can learn a lot from the adoption and the commercialisation of carbon fibre composite products, because they’re an engineered material and a lot of the products we’re looking at with graphene – particularly the geotextile products – are other engineered materials. So we can learn from the pathway that was undertaken for carbon fibre composites and we can use that to rapidly accelerate the path to market for graphene. So some of the challenges with carbon fibre composites have been cost, and that’s not so much of a challenge with some of the industrial graphene grades. And particularly when you’re using very, very small amounts. And so with that challenge being overcome we’ll see a rapid translation into commercialisation of new products and processes. But the other thing is just processing – how it is that you can convert a raw material into a product. And that’s where the Industry 4.0 approach comes into it, and that’s where I think we can really see the rapid translation into new markets.

BB: You mentioned the role of smart materials in Industry 4.0. Can you tell me about the applications of this in composites manufacturing?

BF: I won’t talk too much about that, because we’re just starting out and we have a PhD student in this area, but we’re very much interested in how graphene can be integrated into composites. You talked about my background being in carbon fibre. I’ve actually been interested in carbon, full-stop. And this week there’s the international conference on carbon in Melbourne and I’m speaking at it tomorrow, and I think carbon is just fascinating. The fact that you can just change the arrangement of the atoms and get completely different properties I think has always been an enormous source of fascination to me. And so using carbon in all its forms and using it to tailor specific properties for products is I think a huge opportunity. And the conference has just been amazing in understanding where the cutting-edge is in this particular material.

BB: Why and how Australians can be winners as researchers and industrialists with graphene and why is it something manufacturers should be considering?

BF: We had the world’s leading researchers here this week at the carbon conference. Scientists like Professor P.M. Ajayan from Rice University, a pioneer in nanocomposites, who published one of the first papers showing that nanocomposites could have a huge improvement in properties. All the experts are very much focused on nanoscale properties. Where Australia plays a role is we think in terms of scale, we think in terms of products, and we think in terms of how can that be useful. The other advantage I think we have is that we bring together multidisciplinary teams. We’re not focused on ‘I’m a physicist and so I’m not interested in the chemical modification of graphene.’ We work really well in multidisciplinary teams and we are very creative. So I think that’s where we have a significant advantage to leverage with this material, and that’s what I’m really excited about.

Also, because of Australia’s geographical isolation, I believe we have a very pragmatic culture. I had a conversation with a world expert this week at the conference and we were talking about what we’re doing here. He’d done some work on nanotubes and I was talking about Imagine Intelligent Materials and I said they’ve developed this incredible pilot plant that’s capable of producing ten tonnes of graphene a year. And this person said, ‘What on earth would they do with all of that?!’ This is because most scientists think in terms of a gram is a huge amount. It’s an enormous amount of graphene. We think of production, we think in products, and we think at scale, and I think that’s where Australia can play a significant role.


This is an edited version of an interview with Professor Bronwyn Fox, Director, Swinburne University’s Factory of the Future. Fox joined Swinburne in 2015 after serving as research director at Deakin University’s world-class Carbon Nexus centre. Her presentation is titled “Industry 4.0: Factory Of The Future”.

For more information on the Internet of Industrial Materials Conference 2017, click here.