MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — Ever since it was first separated from graphite in 2004, the possibilities of graphene have proven irresistible to plastics firms looking for composite materials with a greater strength-to-weight ratio (and the advantage of being electrically-conductive) and semiconductor makers looking for a viable alternative to silicon.
Graphene is, quite simply, carbon in its strongest, most simple form: a lattice, a single atom thick, of carbon atoms arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern. A sheet of graphene, one meter square, and weighing just 0.77mg could, theoretically, support the weight of a kitten weighing 1 kg. whilst being invisible to the naked eye. The kitten would appear to be floating on air.
The material was first produced at Manchester University in the UK by taking shavings of graphite from an ordinary pencil "lead", or flakes of mica, and sticking them between two ends of a piece of ordinary adhesive tape and then peeling the tape back from itself. This was repeated until the graphite – an irregular roll of graphene – was pulled apart until it could split no more. It was this seemingly low-tech discovery that earned Russian-born Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoslev the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.
Although Europe is graphene's birthplace, the rest of the world — particularly the Far East — has taken the lead in graphene innovation. According to a January 2013 report by Cambridge IP, China leads the way in graphene R&D with 2,204 patents published in 2012. The United States is second with 1,754 patents and South Korea comes third with 1,160 patents (South Korea's Samsung has more graphene patents to its name than any other corporation).
NanoMaster is an EU Framework Program 7 (FP7) supported project that aims to "develop the knowledge-based processing methods required to up-scale the production of graphene and expanded graphite reinforced thermoplastic masterbatches and compounds and, ultimately, enable its industrial commercialization in Europe".
To date no European company has been able to manufacture graphene-based materials on an industrial scale. That landmark has been reached by Ovation Polymers of the US, which is already offering graphene thermoplastic masterbatches and compounds based on graphene.
The companies working together on the NanoMaster project include materials developer Net Composites of the UK (the project coordinator); Dutch consumer electronics giant Philips; Timcal, a Swiss graphite materials supplier; Spanish research institute Aimplas and Lati Industria, the Italian compounder.
Graphene's potential as a polymer reinforcement is immense. According to the NanoMaster consortium, addition of 5 percent graphene doubles the mechanical properties of TPO and PP, and a tensile modulus increase of 80 percent was seen when compounding 1 percent (by weight) of graphene with PMMA. Graphene reinforced thermoplastic compounds and masterbatches will fit into the existing manufacturing chain, adding new properties to high volume components produced through injection molding, extrusion blow molding and blown film extrusion.
The aim of the NanoMaster project is to reduce the amount of plastic used to make a component by 50 percent and therefore reduce component weight by 50 percent, while also making use of the electrical and thermal conductive properties of graphene.
If European companies can produce graphene reinforced plastics at an industrial scale it will, in NanoMaster's words, "open the door to a vast range of applications enabling the benefits to be exploited throughout Europe and beyond. They will also help place European companies in a position to exploit the rapidly growing markets in the US and Asia-Pacific".
The NanoMaster project was initiated in December 2011 and ends in November 2015.