Graphene paves the way to cleaner, greener technologies

The benefits of graphene are resulting in the carbon allotrope being used to enhance the mechanical properties of an expanding range of products, but for advanced materials manufacturer First Graphene, one of the most exciting areas of focus is reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The significant benefits of graphene have been the subject of extensive research and development since it was first isolated in 2004.

Consisting of carbon atoms arranged in lattice-like structures just a few atoms thick, graphene is the strongest substance ever recorded, having 300 times the strength of structural steel and more than 40 times that of diamond.

It is extremely lightweight, exhibits exceptional flexibility, is more than five times as conductive as copper, resists permeation by water and chemicals, and provides a high level of fire retardancy.

Those properties have led to major advances by commercial manufacturers to incorporate graphene into products ranging from rubber, plastic composites and concrete, to more high-tech applications such as conductive inks and materials used in energy storage.

Australian headquartered advanced materials manufacturer First Graphene Limited was the world’s first commercial manufacturer of consistent-grade, high volume graphene, thanks to a proprietary process developed through its research centre in Manchester, UK, and the company’s purpose-built manufacturing facility in Perth, Western Australia.

The company has a current production capability of around 100 tonnes of graphene per annum and says it can readily scale up or replicate its production facilities in Australia and other locations.

Working initially with a range of early adopters, First Graphene’s team helped manufacturers incorporate its PureGRAPH® graphene into swimming pools, safety footwear, mining wear liners and conveyer belts, boat hulls and even surfboards, among a range of other end-user products.

More recently, the focus has moved upstream in the supply chain to work with material suppliers including rubber and composite masterbatch formulators (producers of materials used by downstream product manufacturers), chemical suppliers to inks and coatings manufacturers, and a range of admixture and grinding aid providers for the cement and concrete industries.

Advanced research is also underway into using graphene for battery and supercapacitor applications.

CEO and Managing Director Michael Bell says in addition to the superior mechanical attributes of graphene, one of the most compelling benefits attracting growing worldwide attention is emission reductions, particularly when it comes to the cement and concrete industries.

“Cement manufacturing contributes 8 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions,” Mr Bell said.

“The Global Cement and Concrete Association, on behalf of 40 leading cement and concrete manufacturers, has vowed to cut carbon emissions by 25 per cent over the next eight years. But it’s uncertain how that can be achieved given production volumes are forecast to continue growing substantially over coming years and the lack of new manufacturing technologies.”

One of the key ingredients of cement is ‘clinker’, which is essentially the binding agent giving strength to cement. It is produced through a calcination process that is a major contributor to the 800kg to 900kg of CO2 being produced for every tonne of cement manufactured.

“Obviously, reducing the amount of clinker used in the cement is vital to make any meaningful impact on CO2 output, but that also means reducing the overall strength of the cement unless a suitable alternative can be found,” Mr Bell said.

“Fortunately, graphene provides that alternative.”

Mr Bell says extensive R&D carried out by First Graphene, in collaboration with research and industry partners, has shown that adding PureGRAPH® to cement can provide the same or better strength properties while reducing the amount of clinker required by 20 per cent.

“A 20 per cent reduction in the amount of clinker required equates to a reduction in CO2 emissions of up to 18 per cent,” Mr Bell said.

“That goes a long way to helping the industry work towards its emission reduction goals.”

The work has led to First Graphene signing deals with major global cement additive manufacturers such as UK-based Fosroc International, as well as securing grant funding for additional research and commercialisation.

In addition, research conducted by First Graphene and others has shown significant potential for very small additions of graphene to increase the functional life of cement and concrete products.

Ongoing research by Australia’s University of Wollongong, in collaboration with First Graphene, has shown that adding less than 0.1 per cent of PureGRAPH® to repair mortars and concrete substantially enhances their performance in corrosive water environments such as wastewater plants and saltwater structures.

Initial test results confirmed the addition of PureGRAPH® reduced the permeability of repair mortar and concrete systems by 19 per cent and 12 per cent respectively, while also reducing sulphate expansion in concrete by 64 per cent and repair mortar by 56 per cent.

Other research has indicated that due to the exceptional strength to weight ratios, concrete volumes used for structural purposes could be reduced by up to 30 per cent.

But cement and concrete are not the only areas in which First Graphene is actively pursuing greener alternatives.

Advanced test work by the company into graphene-based supercapacitor materials demonstrated 85 per cent improvement in energy density and 300 per cent better capacitance than industry standard activated carbon cells.

“Essentially, that means supercapacitors can hold more charge, release it instantly and recharge quickly,” Mr Bell said. “That opens the way for electrification of larger vehicles as it provides the high power requirements and enables longer battery life.

“Our intention, aided by a recent grant from Innovate UK EDGE, is to progress development work on our supercapacitor graphene materials with world-leading experts at the Energy Innovation Centre based at Warwick Manufacturing Group in the UK.”

Additionally on the electric vehicle front, First Graphene helped develop and holds the worldwide patents to an innovative process to convert petroleum products into graphene, synthetic graphite and clean hydrogen.

Mr Bell says the technology provides a path for petroleum companies to diversify and tap into the EV market.

“The technology uses a cavitation process rather than combustion to break apart the hydrocarbons contained in distilled petroleum products,” he said.

“The result is high-grade graphitic products that are in demand for EV battery manufacturing, and clean hydrogen which can be used as a totally renewable source of power to run the cavitation process.

“It is the combustion of fossil fuels that produces significant amounts of CO2 and this cavitation process removes the need for that to occur.

“It’s an innovative way for companies that still have some way to run with fossil fuels to transition away from the production of high emission fuels to the booming market for EVs.”

Apart from those specific areas of focus, Mr Bell says graphene’s abilities to withstand harsh conditions and increase the useful life of products create significant sustainability benefits.

“Think of the blades used on wind turbines, which go into landfill once they’ve run their course,” Mr Bell said. “By extending their use-by date even another 20 or 30 per cent, we’re ultimately reducing landfill and the carbon emissions associated with their manufacturing by the same amount.

“In fact, we’re seeing graphene increase the wear life of products by many multiples more – in the mining industry for example, field testing showed graphene-enhanced rubber bucket wear liners manufactured by one of our foundation customers outlasted standard options by six to seven times.

“It’s a really compelling proposition for any manufacturer or end user organisation targeting greater sustainability and a reduction of their carbon footprint.”