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Spin-Off Producing Commercial-Grade Graphene

Graphene illustration


12 Mar. 2019. A company based on university lab research in the U.K. says it’s producing graphene, a promising carbon-based material, in quality and scale for electronics. Paragraf Ltd., in Somersham, England is spun-off from the materials science lab of Colin Humphreys at University of Cambridge, and says it now can create graphene in large enough units for electronic devices, a step that up to now was difficult to achieve.

Graphene is closely related to graphite like that used in pencils. The material is very light, strong, chemically stable, and only one atom in thickness, arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. Graphene can conduct both heat and electricity, with potential applications in electronics, energy, and health care. In 2010, two researchers at University of Manchester in the U.K. received the Nobel Prize in physics for their discoveries on graphene.

While graphene always held a lot of promise, translating that promise into tangible results has proven elusive. For electronic components, for example, making graphene in a large enough area required using copper as a catalyst, which — according to a Cambridge statement — contaminates the material, making it less desirable for these devices. Two postdoctoral researchers in Humpreys’s materials science lab at Cambridge, Simon Thomas and Ivor Guiney, developed techniques for making large-area graphene sheets, comparable to those made of silicon to fabricate semiconductors, without copper.

Humphreys, along with Thomas and Guiney, started Paragraf in 2015 to commercialize this process. By May 2018, the company gained £2.9 million ($US 3.8 million) in seed funding led by Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialization arm. And in October, Paragraf moved into its research and production facility in Somersham, where it started working on commercial-grade graphene. Thomas is now Paragraf’s CEO, while Guiney is chief technology officer. Humphreys, now on the faculty of Queen Mary University in London, continues as the company’s board chair.

Paragraf says its production process for electronics makes it possible to form graphene directly on semiconductor and transparent crystalline surfaces. This ability to deliver graphene directly in single or multiple layers, removes the need for earlier multiple-stage methods, and is thus a faster and more economical process. Paragraf says its direct-transfer process also eliminates the need for toxic materials, making it safer and more sustainable. The company plans to start shipping its first devices in a few months.

The company says it applies this production technique to producing solar panels as well as semiconductors. At the end of 2017, Paragraf and solar panel manufacturer Verditek plc began a partnership to develop graphene-based solar arrays. The new large-area panels are expected to be lighter and more energy efficient than standard solar panels. The company also plans to apply graphene to supercapacitors, a next-generation technology for energy storage with potentially higher charging speeds and greater capacity.

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