Graphene has finally gotten out of lab and into products, and those products are Australian-made. It will play an important part of our Industry 4.0 future, but there’s a lot of work to be done to get there. By Brent Balinski.

In April and May, over two stages, more than 10,000 sqm of “smart” Australian-made geotextile liner was installed in a Queensland coal seam gas evaporation pond. The non-woven, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) geotextile, made by Geofabrics Australasia, was a first, in a number of respects.

It was coated with a graphene-based conductive coating named imgne X3, produced by Imagine Intelligent Materials. The liner is able to “self-report” in the case of even a small hole being sprung. (Before a coal seam gas evaporation pond can be commissioned, leaks have to be identified and fixed, to prevent leakage of toxic leachate into groundwater.)

Graphene – the “wonder material” one-third of a nanometre thick – has been a source of much hype in recent years, but has currently delivered few breakthroughs outside laboratories. Despite exciting results in scientific journals, graphene has not as yet delivered fantastic wealth to those at the commercial end of things.

“We are not a profitable organisation,” said Ray Gibbs, CEO of Haydale, one of the UK’s better-known graphene companies, in April last year. “Actually, I don’t think anyone in the graphene space today is.”

However, with the Queensland installation for Geofabrics, graphene has finally found a place where it might actually deliver industrial-scale advantages. It also saw Imagine IM, which opened its pilot plant in Geelong in June last year, write its first product invoice. Geosynthetics is a large market – growing at about 9% and expected to be worth US$21.8bn by 2023, according to Markets and Markets. If graphene coatings can prove their value as a means to make those textiles “smart” and capture even a small portion of that, then graphene might finally find its commercial sweet spot.

“Geosynthetics is a very high-volume business,” explains Chris Gilbey, Imagine IM’s CEO. “It’s also a business where the capability that we can deliver will not just deliver an incremental benefit. It also is highly disruptive from an economic standpoint. We can reduce cost in a number of places for the end user.”

This would only be the beginning, though, for Gilbey’s company and others. Many sectors are interested in Internet of Things (IoT) applications where graphene could play a major role. Whether it’s for sensors created via graphene’s conductivity or for its thermal or mechanical properties, there are labs and companies at all levels of the supply chain interested in getting graphene into profitable products.

Composite smart parts

Earlier this year, Gilbey’s company was invited to compete at the Startup Booster, a pitch competition introduced at JEC World – the world’s biggest composites expo – and sponsored by Airbus and Daimler. The range of attendees at the event was vast, according to Dr Phillip Aitchison, Imagine IM’s Head of R&D, who represented the company at the booster. They included “everyone from automotive interior-type companies to… large industrials.”

Aitchison’s presentation included the firm’s concepts around graphene-based pressure, water and heat sensors for “smart composites” – based on detecting changes in resistance in a graphene product, and building on the leak-detection product developed for Geofabrics.

“We’re developing the future of materials – smart parts for anywhere where there’s a plastic or a composite, including epoxies, containing a textile as the base,” says Aitchison. “We’re still very much in the development phase with much of this stuff, demonstrating that you can make an injection-moulded part smart by integrating a graphene carbon fibre or graphene glass fibre composite into it first. Then by embedding it into an epoxy resin or a thermoplastic like polypropylene or nylon, we can make that part ‘smart’. That part then responds if you bend it, flex it, crush it, break it, do something to it.”

Professor Bronwyn Fox, Director of Swinburne University’s Factory of The Future, is a well-known carbon fibre composites specialist. Her previous role was as Research Director at the Carbon Nexus centre within Deakin’s Geelong Innovation Precinct’s ‘carbon cluster’, home to Quickstep’s R&D headquarters and Carbon Revolution.

Fox says there has been great progress achieved in manufacturing processes over the last few years. The first composite part she made involved a 16-hour curing cycle in an autoclave. Curing can now be completed in around a minute. She leads “Industry 4.0” research at Swinburne, with a keen focus on composites manufacturing, and believes there’s an opportunity for Australian companies to play a leadership role in developing such processes for global supply chains. Fox believes graphene-enabled in-process sensing could fit within this work.

“Imagine IM, through their graphene technology, can create smart, sensing textiles that can be integrated into conventional carbon fibre composites to give you the ability to monitor and control the manufacturing,” she says. “So you have a smart part that’s reporting back on the specific conditions that it’s experiencing as it’s being manufactured.”

Your equipment tells you it’s broken

Mining is the backbone of the Australian economy, and it’s an industry where smart materials have great potential. It is no secret that with huge capital and operating expenses – as well as huge resultant costs for unplanned downtime – knowing the limits equipment can have and the prospect of being able to extend its life is a non-trivial issue for mine sites.

Imagine IM recently received a $20,000 grant from National Energy Resources Australia (NERA), one of six Federal Government-supported Industry Growth Centres, and concerned with oil, gas and uranium mining, to help bring the smart materials concept to mechanical screening of ore.

The Smart Screens project, with polymers and compounds company Duromer Australia, aims to establish a proof of concept for graphene-enhanced ore-processing screens. The move away from metal and towards plastic components – sometimes reinforced by glass fibre – means there could be a spot for “smart fibres” impregnated with a graphene formulation, says Aitchison, and will lead to parts that can sense.

“By making those parts smart… they will tell you ‘I’ve gone through a million bending cycles, and I’m probably getting towards the end of my life. At the next maintenance cycle swap me out.’ Or it can say ‘I’m broken’ before someone actually notices,” he explains.

“A part could be buried inside a large machine, and can say ‘I’m broken. Stop the machine’. Or ‘there’s only one arm broken out of a whole bunch of arms. You will probably be okay until a second one breaks.’ So it allows people to schedule maintenance in a much more productive way. It allows them to monitor the operational life of a part and be more efficient in the way they operate.’”

Mining screens are one of the next steps for smart, connected products and structures, but the applications beyond that are vast, says the company. Gilbey points to an IoT report from McKinsey, predicting the trend could create between US$0.2 trillion and US$0.9 trillion in value globally per year by 2025 at worksites applications alone. The total predicted impact is put at between US$4 trillion and US$9 trillion annually. With a little effort, graphene might have a role enabling communications within the connected industries of the future.

Certification collaboration

Graphene is, however, “substantially not understood” at the moment, Gilbey argues. Part of the reason it is yet to live up to its much-hyped potential is the high amount of variability around the material. Monolayer, trilayer, few-layer, nanoribbons, nanoplatelets, nanoflakes, carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, nanotubes, nanoplatelets: these are all types of graphene or are made from graphene.

First isolated in 2004, graphene in its idealised form is extremely conductive of heat and electricity; it is the strongest material there is, impermeable to gas, and highly elastic. Those beautiful, chickenwire-like carbon hexagons imagined in cartoon diagrams are still largely imaginary. Real graphene sheets come with imperfections. Flakes (usually the way graphene is sold, and usually in a dispersion) are not homogenously-sized or shaped. And all graphene, to be useful for an intended purpose, must be expertly chemically functionalised, says Imagine IM.

Another, related issue is the lack of standards and repeatability. This is huge barrier to usefulness, and not just in industry.

“In one of the research projects I was doing at Deakin we discovered some really significant properties through adding graphene to a particular polymer,” recalls Fox. “And when you’re doing research and you get a result like that, you think ‘Wow, that particular grade of graphene improves the performance enormously. What will all the other grades do?’

“And when we investigated every other grade of graphene we couldn’t find any that worked. So how do you invest in commercialising a technology and take it to the next stage when you’re not sure? What if your supplier goes broke, or something happens or they stop producing that particular product for some reason?”

To address the problem, Swinburne, Imagine IM and other industry partners began a three-year, $4m Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) initiative this year focusing on certification and qualification, aiming to better understand how graphite sources and processing factors impact the final product. There are numerous efforts that claim to deliver certification elsewhere in the world. However, according to Aitchison, most of these are from an academic perspective and will not have any commercial relevance for some time yet.

“It’s not hypothetical: we’re putting our graphene and our masterbatch materials into real commercial environments,” he explains. “We’ll use ours and any partner’s commercial products as the test beds, but we’ll use the full power of the academic research perspective – including things like using the Australian Synchrotron – to understand really what’s going on and which are the important bits and which are the less important bits.

“For example, what does industry need to know to use graphene, in terms of measurement? You can do dozens of different types of measurements which tell you things about graphene, but most of them are irrelevant to industrial application. What is the information that an industrial partner needs to know, what is the equipment they need to use, how will any of us conduct the measurements, and who will provide the services?”

In Australia scientists, engineers and business are leading the world in thinking and acting on these things.