Graphene is just one of the multiple forms or states carbon can take.
The word to describe a substance that can take more than one form is allotrope, derived from the Greek.
An example many can relate to is how carbon can, over millions of years, become coal or under different environmental conditions become diamonds. Modern day Graphene production is somewhat quicker and is engineered by man.
Raw graphene possesses many unique properties but still requires further engineering to render it suitable for other application specific uses.
Under the microscope Graphene appears as only one atom in thickness. It is also close to weightless with 2sqm weighing just 1.5mg (0.015kg).
Even though being one atom in thickness and in effect 2 dimensional, to the human eye Graphene appears much like a skin or coating.
The properties of graphene are truly remarkable – up to 300 times stronger than steel with a tensile strength measured in the multi-millions of PSI.
In addition, Graphene is one of the world’s best, most efficient conductors of electricity and heat while also possessing unique properties in regard to light absorption. It is also impermeable to all gasses.
Over the last five years massive advances in graphene derivative production techniques have taken place. However, graphene is not a useable product in it basic state.
Its real commercial potential is being unleashed by developing multi-layer graphene into advanced composite fibre materials.
A whole new universe of manufacturing opportunity has been opened up.
Existing products can be completely “reinvented” and new products and product applications that hitherto were impossible can now be realised.
A breathtaking array of product applications leveraging graphene are now at various stages of development.
These graphene enhanced products include rubber/graphene composites to produce longer lasting tyres with superior grip (leveraging graphene’s hydrophobic characteristics); novel battery and supercapacitor technology (leveraging graphene’s incredible conductivity); lighter and stronger sports equipment (leveraging graphene’s tensile strength).
Inherently sensing materials are particularly exciting. These utilise aspects of graphene’s conductivity which can be engineered into graphene platelets through functionalization in the manufacturing process.
Australia is at the forefront of developing materials that utilise graphene and Australian based Imagine Intelligent Materials (Imagine IM) is a leader in the development and production of new materials that use functionalised graphene as the basis for commercial applications that can be manufactured at scale.
CEO Chris Gilbey is an entrepreneur of great scientific and commercial vision. Quite rightly Mr Gilbey sees the future of graphene as one that could well shape the future of global manufacturing as we know it and fully challenge the very essence of product designs, production processes and how product utility is understood and valued.
Chris and the team at Imagine IM are conceiving and creating on a broad global canvas and the knowledge intensive business culture of “can do” is palpable.
Developing graphene based composite materials is R&D intensive and Imagine IM has invested several millions of dollars in developing its first product. The company has an internal R&D team and also works with globally accredited research institutions at Australian Universities.
The company was founded in 2014, and while its core team consists of ten, it’s activities are driving an understanding from its customers and its partners of the kinds of advanced skills that employees in Australia may need to have in the near future for companies to be globally competitive.
The company’s first product is aimed at the US$16billion global geosynthetic materials sector. It is a coating for geotextiles that enables the detection of holes in the materials used to line dams, landfills and highways. The goal initially is to enable dams to be constructed that are free of leaks.
Water security is an imperative globally and it is critical that evaporation ponds associated with mines, coal seam gas operations and nuclear power plants are leak free to ensure that toxic leachate doesn’t contaminate ground water and aquifers.
Geotextiles are also used under highways and wherever there is infrastructure in order to keep water from eroding foundations. Imagine IM’s product enables this to be cost efficiently achieved.
This first product developed in Australia by Imagine IM represents a platform technology that will lead to other applications being developed that have the potential to deliver improved safety in mining operations, to enable smart roads to be constructed, and to allow for continual monitoring of structural integrity in all kinds of infrastructure.
Imagine IM has built a manufacturing plant in Geelong to manufacture and functionalise graphene and disperse it into a “masterbatch” product that can be easily integrated into mass manufacturing systems. The reality is that graphene requires considerable value add R&D before it can be integrated into a manufacturing processes.
The innovation that Imagine IM has developed is to develop not only a bespoke product solution, but also a way to deliver that solution to a mass manufacturer.
Imagine IM is in negotiations currently for its first export order to build a plant for a US based partner so that imgne X3 can be licensed and fulfilled to a major geosynthetics company in the US. This will enable Imagine IM to focus on developing further high volume product solutions for global markets with an insatiable demand for smarter products, and particularly for smarter products that cost less and can be manufactured in country.
Imagine IM is leading the world in developing the materials that will be at the centre of what is being called Industry 4.0 – the connection of embedded systems production technologies with smart production processes that will radically transform industry and production value chains and business models.
This is not merely a glimpse into the future it is the future and it’s here today and Australia’s Imagine IM is a world leader in a technology that historians will later record as being among the great developments of the modern technological age.
David Gray is lead consultant at Digital Information Partners www.diginfo.com.au