An interview with Cambridge NanoSystems' Chief Scientist

Cambridge Nanosystems (CNS) was spun-off from the University of Cambridge last year with with an aim to supply graphene and SWCNT materials. The company recently started building a 5-yearly ton graphene factory with the help of a £500,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board. The new factory is due to open in 2015.

Catharina Paukner, the company's chief scientist, was kind enough to answer a few questions we had on the company and its technology and also share her views on the graphene market.

Q: Catharina, thanks for this interview. Can you give us a short introduction to Cambridge Nanosystems?

Cambridge Nanosystems is a UK-based start-up born out of Cambridge University that specializes in advanced materials.

We were the very first to developed a ground-breaking new method of producing ultra-high-quality, impurity-free graphene in high volumes. Our process is based on the bottom up, molecular assembly of graphene sheets, using natural gas as carbon precursor and without the need of a catalyst. The innovative production method enables the commercial scale production of these multi-functional, high-performance materials.

We are collaborating with world-leading companies and academic experts to develop these materials into advanced designs that will transform global manufacturing processes, and ultimately revolutionise a wide range of consumer and industrial products.

Q: You currently produce high-quality metal-free graphene flakes (200-800 nm). Can you tell us how your graphene differs from other GNFs on the market?

We produce our graphene by plasma cracking of natural gas from the tap. The IP developed in CNS allows us to shape graphene from the ionic species right after the plasma zone. This is a simple way to achieve high purity material because we do not employ any catalyst or other additives to grow graphene. Obviously we also have no surfactants in the resulting product. It's really a great, clean, one-step process: natural gas in, graphene and hydrogen out.

The first advantage, in industrial terms, is that you get a material which does not have any chemical modification (you would always have with liquid exfoliation processes for instance). This means that for a given application, it is much easier to integrate into the related manufacturing process. It is easier to disperse, easier to make into a composite or to produce inks.

The ability to create graphene with a high percentage of single and few layers has also a significant impact. Many existing suppliers are providing materials, which are actually closer to graphite. With our controlled materials, we are able to deliver performance that one should expect from graphene.

Q: Can you tell us more about the upcoming new factory?

At the moment we are building our new factory of 2500 m2, almost in the heart of Cambridge, just off Newmarket Road. This is very exciting for us because since we will have such great opportunities, staying close to the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge graphene cluster. The larger facility will accommodate our next generation pilot plant increasing by about one hundred time the current capacity.

Q: What kind of applications are you targeting for your graphene flakes? Do you have any projects you can share with our readers?

Our current developments mainly include composite materials and conductive inks that are used for thermal management applications and electronics. Those materials can be compatible with 2D and 3D printing. We also have interesting development in batteries.

We work with several world-leading industrial partners mainly in the automotive and aerospace sectors, in the UK, Europe and Asia. At this stage the collaborations are subject to non-disclosure agreements but we hope to communicate about them very soon.

Q: What kinds of applications are being targeted for your graphene-based inks?

We are working on generating heat by applying voltage to thin layers of graphene composites. These could be applied in buildings but also in vehicles, as very low voltages are required to heat up large areas within a short amount of time, or also as de-icing materials for aircraft. Then we also work on creating composites, pastes, etc for removing heat, like for example thermal management of batteries etc.

Q: In 2013 you CNS an agreement with FGV for the development of a palm oil to graphene production technique. Any update on that?

The project is actually focusing on converting methane [and CO2] into graphene as an abundant carbon source. Our production method would then not only produce graphene on a large scale but also serve as a carbon storage method, converting gas wastes into valuable materials.

Q: What is your take on the graphene market? How do you see graphene affecting our lives in the next 3-5 years?

We think graphene will significantly lower your energy bill!

Regardless the application, our partners always ask us two things: more performance, less energy consumption, and this is exactly what graphene can provide. As an example, our graphene fast heating systems save energy for home and car heating, and at the same time improve comfort as radiant heat removes the unpleasant side effects of circulation heat [from radiators]. Not to forget the design perspectives coming from a sub-millimetre flexible layer that can be printed or painted instead of heavy metal wires or water filled radiators. Our applications in this area are already in the late prototype phase and we should expect market introduction in the next couple of years.

Printable electronics are also realistic and will affect people’s lives because suddenly it will be possible to print circuit boards with the inkjet printer in almost every home. There will be an increased flexibility of how people design their own electronic devices, less dependence on what the market provides and more freedom in what can be created. Obviously, if in this way technology creation is open to orders of magnitude more people, technology enhancement will go a lot faster and be more consumer-oriented.

Q: Where do you see Cambridge Nanosystems in 5 years? What role will CNS play in the graphene market?

Currently, we are scaling up our production level with our new factory in Cambridge. However, our role extends beyond the one of a simple supplier. Although the graphene market is young, there has been so much research and development going on that the benefits of the material look very clear but the key issue is all about how to make it into real world products. Beyond simply supplying top quality materials, we see our role as transforming manufacturing processes to allow the commercialisation of those real world applications.

We already work with a number of leading companies in a range of sectors on a collaborative basis, which will lead to every day life applications coming from CNS collaborations within the next five years.

Thank you Catharina, and good luck to both you and CNS!

Posted: Dec 09,2014 by Ron Mertens