Eco Investor May 2016
Australia's First Commercial Graphene Plant
The discoverers of graphene won the Nobel Prize in 2010, but if you haven't heard of graphene you're not alone. It's a high-tech material that can be used as an ultra thin coating - think half a dozen atoms or so, yet is said to be a hundred times stronger than steel. Graphene is described as the first two dimensional material, and is classed as a super-material' due to its extremely high electrical and thermal conductivity, its strength, its ability not to interact or dissolve in water, its impermeability to all gases, and its ability to stretch like rubber.
The ability to efficiently conduct heat and electricity make it useful in semiconductors, electronics, batteries and composites. Its impermeability gives it applications in water safety and conservation.
Graphene has a small market at present, but there are moves to grow it. One of these comes from Sydney based Imagine Intelligent Materials Pty Ltd (Imagine IM), which has contracted engineering company, Austeng, to build Australia's first commercial graphene manufacturing plant.
Phil Aitchison, chief operating officer and head of R&D at Imagine IM, said the pilot plant will be used to bed-down the company's proprietary production processes and supply Imagine IM's domestic customers in 2016 and 2017.
The plant will produce up to 10 tonnes of graphene per year. Two tonnes of the graphene in the first year will be for products and customers in the Australian manufacturing sector. Once the commercial graphene capacity is in place, the company believes it will identify more opportunities to supply graphene to other manufacturers.
Last month the company entered an agreement with Australia's largest geotextiles manufacturer, Geofabrics Australasia Pty Ltd, under which Geofabrics will become the exclusive Australian licensee of Imagine IM's technology for geotextile applications. Geofabrics will use the technology to offer civil engineering companies a low cost and significantly improved capacity to locate and remedy leaks in landfill and mining construction.
Imagine IM's chief executive, Chris Gilbey said "We have utilized graphene's electrical conductivity to provide the means to detect pin hole sized leaks in geotextiles. Leak detection is important because undetected leaks mean that there is potential for toxins to escape from tailings dams and landfills into ground water."
He estimates the technology will save his customers around 20 to 40 per cent on their current solution costs.
Mr Gilbey said water management is the first focus for Imagine IM as there is a global need to address water safety and conservation and for cost effective leak detection in the mining industry, both of which are driving increased environmental regulations in Australia and around the world.
Geofabrics' products will be manufactured at its Albury, NSW facility and the first of its graphene coated geotextile products is scheduled for release in August. Brendan Swifte, general manager at Geofabrics, said "We believe that our bidim geotextile with graphene coating is a game changer' for the geotextile industry. It will be a high tech solution at an extremely competitive price."
Mr Gilbey said his company's graphene coating technology has the potential to become a key element of the world's geotextiles industry, which is growing at around 10 per cent per annum and will be worth around $20 billion by 2018.
Until recently the global market for graphene was mostly for academic research aimed at manufacturing at industrial scale. But BCC Research says interest in commercial applications is now growing. It estimates the global market for graphene products will reach $1.3 billion by 2023. Reports and Reports forecasts that in 2018 $100 million of graphene will be sold for use in RFIDs, smart packaging, super capacitors, composites, ITO replacement, sensors, and memory.
Mr Gilbey says Graphene is now viewed as a strategic resource in most of the industrial economies, and Imagine IM is at the forefront of developing commercially viable solutions. Although graphene has many properties, they are not present all at once and different formulations are needed to bring out attributes for specific applications.
"Our focus is on developing solutions for large scale manufacturers that will integrate into their supply chains with relative ease and without requiring our customers to need to invest in new capex. This first plant is going to be a major step in us building supply for our own customers and achieving global competitiveness."
Mr Gilbey anticipates a need for well over 100 tonnes of graphene per year within the next four years.
Imagine IM was founded in 2014 by a group of scientists led by Messrs Gilbey and Aitchison. It is Australia's leading developer of graphene-based coatings for industrial textiles and fibres and the first company in the world to develop conductive geomaterials using functionalized graphene.
"The scientific and engineering team at Imagine IM is proud that we have taken graphene out of the research laboratory and transformed its potential into a genuine commercial application and in so doing boosted Australia's clever country' credentials," said Mr Gilbey.
Imagine IM's first graphene manufacturing plant at North Geelong will commence production in August and will supply graphene solutions to Geofabrics.
Imagine IM is developing other products and solutions for the global geotextiles industry and is planning to migrate its platform technologies into other textile product lines for solving water associated problems. Mr Gilbey said the company is also in discussions about licensing agreements in the United States.
"The race to commercialize graphene has seen the launch of numerous companies in the USA, Europe and Asia. The European Commission has established the one billion Euro Graphene Flagship Fund to help the commercialization of graphene in Europe. In the UK, the British Government has helped establish the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester.
In Australia ASX listed Hazer Group Ltd is working with the University of WA to enable its Hazer process to produce graphene, and Ionic Industries is seeking to raise $10 million to commercialize its graphene oxide production technology. But these Australian developers are in different sectors to Imagine IM.
Despite all the effort, until now no company has been able to develop a product that delivers at industrial scale the potential that has been indicated in research labs, said Mr Gilbey.
So far Imagine IM has been funded privately, but as its capital needs will be high it is now looking at other options including a public listing.
Mr Gilbey is a successful entrepreneur in the music and technology industries and for 35 years has led businesses monetizing intellectual property. He has been Entrepreneur in Residence at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong, and while there he developed a strategy to spin out a water splitting technology that led to the formation of Aquahydrex, which was funded by a US venture capital firm.
Phil Aitchison has 20 years experience in applied materials science, intellectual property, manufacturing, licensing and technology commercialization. His main area of success is in energy storage, notably lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors where nano-materials and carbon composites play a key role. He has been Vice President of Research and Development at Australian supercapacitor developer and manufacturer, CAP-XX; and at Pacific Lithium in New Zealand he developed new lithium-ion battery technology and manufacturing processes and the technology was acquired by 3M.
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