Terrance Barkan shares his thoughts on the development of the graphene industry.

Incredible potential and widely divergent applications, but standards still needed

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.The first is with Terrance Barkan, Founder and Executive Director of The Graphene Council. He shared his thoughts with us on the development of the industry, the importance of quality assurance, and more.

BB: Could you tell me about how far the industry has come since 2013, when you founded The Graphene Council?

TB: It’s clearly shifted from a predominantly academic and basic research-driven focus to the emergence of true commercial entities, and that includes companies that have been able to go public, as well as advents in the marketplace of real products that are being sold, especially in the composites space. And in 2017, what we’ve seen from a number of different manufacturers of the materials – companies like Haydale – that are not just manufacturing but are functionalising the materials – is that almost every single one of them have announced significant production volume increases for 2017, based on the pull through of actual customer orders.

BB: Could you please give us a preview of what you will be saying at the Internet of Industrial Materials 2017 conference?

TB: We do regular surveys of the graphene community. The Graphene Council is the largest community of graphene professionals in the world. We have 8,500 individual members worldwide and we also have corporate members. Additionally we’re an official member of the ISO/ANSI graphene standards body. What we’re going to talk about is the state of play for the industry. We recently conducted a survey asking producers and users what kind of material they’re working with for which applications. From within that we ask them which are the characteristics or properties of materials that they consider the most important, so that we can prioritise. There are different forms of graphene – it’s not just one material – and these forms have advantages and disadvantages for different applications. Our ultimate aim is that The Graphene Council be able to deliver a quality verification system where we can have the materials tested against the producers own specifications. We would also physically inspect production facilities in order to verify that bona fide producers are able to produce to the specifications that they issue for their material. What we’re not doing is saying ‘You have to produce material to this specific specification’.

So, what happens is a manufacturer says that they’re producing material “X”. The quality and verification system then steps in and assures that the manufacturer is actually producing what they say they’re producing. The quality verification system is a third-party independent checking and validation that the producer’s material meets its own defined specifications. It’s kind of a quality assurance rather than expecting everybody to produce the same material.

BB: Tell me what drew you to graphene? Why is it fascinating?

Graphene fascinates me because other than the creation of plastics, I can’t think of another material that has so many potential and widely divergent applications.  From its physical properties and ability to strengthen other materials, its use in composites, its electrical properties, transparency, the opportunity to be used in energy storage or energy generation, barrier properties, etcetera.

It’s fascinating to see one material have so many widely divergent applications that any one of which could have a huge impact. For example, water filtration, the ability for water desalination or water treatment; or energy storage: those two alone are world-impacting. And there’s at least 40 that we’ve identified, 40 different vertical industrial application areas where graphene holds promise.

BB: How many companies are currently involved in graphene production right now?

TB: We’re tracking about 130 companies that we know are involved at this stage, and you have to put a big asterisk on that because there are spinouts from universities that are included that may be doing some extremely small volumes. There are probably about 300 companies worldwide that claim to be producing graphene. We track about 130 to 150 of those and maybe a third of them are producing what we’d call commercial volumes.

BB: To generalise, they’re mostly producing composites, coating and inks, is that fair to say?

TB: I think that’s fair to say. I also think there’s a good amount of volume that’s flowing into energy storage devices – so batteries and supercapacitors. I think the challenge in actually seeing the volume in the market is that many of these companies have proprietary agreements with their customers and don’t want to necessarily disclose the technologies they’re using so they can keep some kind of competitive advantage in the marketplace before the use of graphene becomes more widespread in whatever sector or application they’re looking at. There is a significant lack of transparency regarding applications and volumes, which is often intentional.

BB: It’s not a topic that gets much media attention, but all the same, standards are very important. Can you tell me about the situation regarding this and the importance of developing robust standards to grow the industry?

TB: As a matter of fact as I sit here talking to you I’m about to send out an email to our standards taskforce members and to our corporate members. And so there’s ISO IEC draft technical specification number 62565-3-1 Nanomanufacturing – Material specifications – Part 3-1: Graphene – Blank detail specification. Now what that is is it’s a description of the various characteristics of the material and how they would be measured. And so this is, I think, a huge advancement for graphene standards development because it talks about how you would define what graphene is, but more importantly how do you define the various characteristics, such as impurity, conductivity, ductility and which methods would be used to test it, so it can be replicated in a consistent manner. This is going to go a long way towards installing quality control in the industry.

BB: Anybody can buy graphene on, say, eBay if you wanted to, but you have no idea what you’re getting and that doesn’t help the credibility of anyone taking the job of production seriously.

TB: Absolutely. Here’s the challenge: you have bona fide producers of the material and you have others that are producing some material that has carbon in it but is not graphene, and they’re calling it graphene. And so the end user gets a batch of, let’s say, bad spec material and it doesn’t work, and they’re likely to say ‘well, graphene doesn’t work.’ And they don’t realise that they just never had the right material to begin with. Another big issue is they don’t know how to handle the material – so dispersion in handling is a big issue, because it might be good material but if it’s not handled correctly for the application the end result will fail, and the material gets blamed but it should be the process [blamed].

BB: What is your point of view on the what the development of a graphene industry here could mean for graphite producers?

TB: The use of graphite as a feedstock for the production of graphene is a common approach, a known and proven approach. I think it’s definitely going to continue, because it makes sense, especially for high-volume, low-cost. Whether or not it’s going to have an impact on valuation is difficult to say. I think, to be quite clear, if you look at the value chain, the value of the material is downstream, the value-add is in the applications of the actual graphene material. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for graphite producers, simply because it’s a new market that’s on tap, and the good news is that for the value of the graphene material, the prices paid for quality graphene are comparatively high. I don’t understand the graphite market completely, but my perception is that it’s high-volume, low-cost, mass production and application of graphite material. Quality certainly matters.

So the short answer is yes, I think if I was a graphite miner, I think it’s exciting to have a high value-add product that can come out the other end. And that’s why we see some of them not just producing graphite and delivering it to graphene producers, but actually converting the material to graphene.

This is an edited version of an interview with Terrance Barkan, Executive Director of The Graphene Council (USA), who will join the conference via video link. His presentation is titled “The Global Graphene Opportunity”.

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