The birthplace of graphene – the one-atom-thick carbon – is Manchester University, where it was created by two physicists. But Cambridge could become the adopted home of the so-called wonder-material.
A vast new facility that can make up to five tons of the ultra-valuable black dust each year is being built in the city and is due to open in 2015.
Cambridge Nanosystems, a university spin-out, led by chief scientist Catharina Paukner, 30, has built the factory with the help of a £500,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board.
“It’s mind-blowing to think that not long ago, it was only possible to make a ladleful in a year. Now we can make enough to fill a whole building,” says Catharina. “And we have the capacity to increase that 100-fold.”
Graphene is one of the most interesting inventions of modern times. Stronger than steel, yet light, the material conducts electricity and heat. It has been used for a wide variety of applications, from strengthening Novak Djokovic’s tennis racket to building semiconductors.
Graphene, in its raw state, is a fine black powder
If the idea of strapping giant gas canisters to cows seems a little far-fetched, Cambridge Nanosystems has found a more immediate source of methane.
“Landfill sites produce a lot of methane, which is a greenhouse gas,” she explains. “You can’t just let it into the atmosphere, so companies spend a lot of money flaring it off. This produces carbon dioxide, which is also bad for the planet. If we take that gas, we can make graphene, with water being the only waste product.”
Cambridge Nanosystems is running a project at a biogas plant to prove it can create graphene using this process reliably and consistently.
By attaching an electrical current to the painted area,
conductive graphene heats immediately, warming the room.
Cambridge Nanosystems was spun out to build equipment for the creation of graphene, but Paukner and her co-founders soon realized that graphene itself had the greatest potential.
“The possibilities are endless,” says Paukner. “I’m passionate about applications for the building industry. Imagine radiators that you can spray on any surface. We can create a kind of black ink using graphene that can be painted on to a wall or a floor.”
By attaching an electrical current to the painted area, conductive graphene heats immediately, warming the room. Plumbers would not have to install radiators, just a paintbrush, she explains.
The radiators of the future will be painted on graphene, less than 1mm thick.
Koziol is more excited about 3D printing with graphene. He has built a 3D printer that can make simple devices. “By using graphene in manufacturing process, costs could be reduced dramatically,” he says.
Cambridge Nanosystems is constantly developing new ways to use graphene, but will partner with corporations to bring them to market. “We have to make the prototypes to show them what can be done,” says Paukner.
The company is in talks with some of the world’s biggest aerospace and automotive corporations about ways to use graphene in composites to make super lightweight, indestructible machines that never rust.
Construction firms too are excited by the firm’s spray-on heaters and the fire retardant properties of graphene. The company is fielding enquiries from as far afield as Japan, the US and Australia.
All of these deals are subject to non-disclosure agreements, but are forecast to generate revenues of £2m within the next two years. Last year, the firm employed four people, this year they hired 10 and next year, another 20 will be brought in to cope with demand.
The Government is also keen to see graphene developed. George Osborne mentioned it in his Autumn Statement this week; he is spending £235m on a new advanced materials centre in Manchester.
The new Cambridge facility means that graphene will be available to scientists in large quantities. This may speed up breakthroughs, while Cambridge Nanosystems’ partnerships with companies ensures plenty of interest and investment. Paukner says: “I want other people to fulfil their dreams, just as we are fulfilling ours.”