Advanced Materials & Manufacturing
Every once in a while, there’s a scientific breakthrough that changes the world. The wheel, carbon fibre, electricity, penicillin, DNA, splitting the atom. The latest name on this illustrious roll-call is a peculiar form of carbon that could revolutionise … well, very nearly everything.
It’s called graphene. In some ways, it’s ridiculously simple stuff: a single layer of six carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It’s one of the thinnest materials on earth: three million layers stacked together is just 1mm thick, yet 200 times stronger than steel. It’s a superb conductor of heat and electricity, and forms a barrier that even helium and hydrogen can’t sneak through.
The weirdest thing about graphene is that it’s always been there, waiting to be found. You make your own graphene every time you scribble with a pencil. The pair of Manchester scientists who ‘discovered’ it – or rather, first understood its properties and potential – won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Graphene will undoubtedly change the world. But there’s a catch. Despite its miraculous properties, graphene is very, very difficult to use and consistently produce in volume. On its own, it’s just a fabulously clever sheet of atoms. To unlock its potential, you need to mix it with other things – to endow ordinary materials with graphene’s superpowers.
That’s what they’re doing in Ammanford, in a shiny white building that’s the global HQ of Haydale. This is one of the UK’s leading research centres for graphene, and now they’re taking it out of the laboratory, and into the big wide world. Haydale is commercialising it, essentially: making and selling graphene-enhanced materials that’ll eventually find their way into everyday objects: our cars, our clothes, our phones and even your fridge.
But not just yet, says chief executive Ray Gibbs. “Carbon fibre took decades to travel from the lab into the real world and today it’s everywhere, even the aircraft we fly in. Teflon took more than 20 years to become an overnight success.”
The problem is, graphene is hard to handle, explains Ray: “Graphene is made of carbon, and carbon is an inert material. It doesn’t want to mix with anything. Its potential is only realised when you can properly disperse the graphene into another material, and that’s what we do with our patented plasma process combined with our inhouse dispersion knowledge.”
Haydale patented a process by which they put grapheme through a plasma reactor to functionalise it – i.e. to enable it to bond with other materials in order to harness the properties of graphene and other nanomaterials. Like all good scientific breakthroughs, it happened almost accidentally with scientists looking at bonding materials together in a room in Swansea University.
They soon spun out from Swansea University, and set up a R&D facility with the help of Welsh Government funding. Haydale still keeps strong ties to its alma mater: the company has close ties with Professor Tim Claypole at Swansea University’s Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC). They’ve also got a ‘pipeline agreement’ with the WCPC: Haydale commissions research projects and gets first rights on any discoveries that might have a commercial use. In return, the university and the staff inventors receive equity in Haydale, sharing in the success.
The company’s HQ is still in Wales, but it now has sites in the main geographic territories of the USA, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan where the main markets are. As the market for graphene compounds (known as masterbatches) grows, there may be a need for sites around the world in strategic locations to produce the masterbatches of graphene composites.
Haydale’s graphene-enhanced products are already finding uses out in the real world. They company has worked with Briggs Automotive to make components for its BAC Mono, a single-seat supercar that has graphene in its body panels, making them stronger, stiffer, lighter and the car more fuel-efficient.
Haydale is working with National Grid to fit protective sleeves around the company’s huge high-pressure gas pipes. Leading water and sewerage pipe producer, Flowtite Technology are testing new ways to improve the strength and durability of its large diameter pipes by adding Haydale’s graphene-enhanced resin to the GRP (glass reinforced plastic) from which they’re made.
Haydale’s conductive ink – another major strand of its business, based principally in the Far East – is being used in diabetic blood-testing kits, the first of a wave of medical applications for graphene products.
Haydale is also helping to make aviation safer, says Ray: “If you look at aircraft and drones, lightning strikes are a huge problem. Every aircraft has a copper Faraday Cage in its airframe that’s woven into the fabric, which adds both weight and cost. But if we build graphene into the resin that binds the aircraft’s body, that potentially dissipates the lightning strike and can help the aircraft become lighter and hence more fuel-efficient.”
This won’t happen overnight: aircraft manufacture is heavily regulated, and new technologies can take years to become adopted. But long-term projects throw up shortterm possibilities, says Ray: “We can use that technology for a whole host of unregulated applications, and that will happen a lot quicker. We can enjoy short-term wins to keep revenue coming in, and still work on long-term projects.”
Haydale’s income doubled in 2017, but the team are playing the long game: keeping their heads down, researching, developing, inventing, testing, exploring. And if, as pundits are predicting, graphene does indeed become woven into every fabric of our lives, we’ll all have a little bit of Ammanford with us.