There’s no dispute that graphene-based ink applications are already super-charging the expanding universe of printed and flexible electronics.
Products like touchscreens, radio antennas, transistors and even life-saving electronic sensors for your car can be improved on mass-marketable scales by reliable supplies of graphene ink and paste. That’s the forecast from emerging technologies expert Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Phd. Dr. Ghaffarzadeh is the research director for IDTechEx, a company that seeks to connect new technology with global brands. In a recent webcast, Dr. Ghaffarzadeh discussed growth trends in the conductive ink industry, citing current production levels of 1,900 tons per year. “That’s a $1.6 billion market driven by companies with deep experience and a market that is maturing,” he says. “The future is being shaped today and nobody wants to be left behind.”
Dr. Ghaffarzadeh agrees that graphene will be a vital engine of that bright future. You can view his comments here (embed video interview) that were video taped at the IDTechEx Show in Santa Clara, California, in November 2016, where Graphene Entrepreneur.com interviewed Dr. Ghaffarzadeh.
The scientist and technology guru concedes that graphene commercialization has been slowed by challenges with producing enough of the singularly strong, highly conductive and pliable material for large-scale product manufacturing. But he adds recent laboratory breakthroughs may help the much-touted miracle material turn the corner.
“Despite all the challenges and despite the early-stage nature of this industry, we think graphene is going to end up in markets,” he says. The re-emergence of China as a producer and consumer of conductive ink technology, adds Dr. Ghaffarzadeh, is one growth factor. “China will be a big part of the development of the next generation of inks and pastes,” he explains. “Production has migrated to China.”
Classroom to Boardroom
One graphene ink case study has already jumped from the storied academic halls and research laboratories of the University of Cambridge in England to a corporate production facility. Researchers from the Graphene Flagship in Cambridge developed a technique for producing inks with high graphene concentrations and correlating conductivity. They use a microfluidisation method to shear off graphene flakes from graphite more efficiently than a powerwasher extracts dust from your back deck. In this exfoliation method, however, 100 percent of the original graphite is converted into usable flakes for conductive ink. The process features three advantages that make it ideal for commercial implementation: it makes full use of available graphite supplies, it’s functionally possible outside of a centrifuge-quipped laboratory and it’s rapid enough to reliably meet delivery deadlines.
In fact, the production breakthrough was so ground-breaking that it has already generated a commercial spin-off company, Cambridge Graphene — which has already attracted a buyer, the engineering solutions firm Versarien. The Cambridge-based printing company Novalia is also using the inks in their interactive printed electronic touch device demonstrations.
Besides innovative production techniques, the Graphene Flagship/Versarien evolution has pioneered a research-to-rollout model fueled by the risk-taking spirit of entrepreneurship. The new process was commercially licensed before the research was even published — a reversal of the usual steps. It’s a strategy that Cambridge Graphene Center officials say proves it’s feasible to cut the time from lab to market for new graphene-based products.
In the Thick of It
A partnership between two other global technology firms, Germany-based Heraeus and U.K.-based Perpetuus Advanced Materials, claims to offer the first global mass-market commercial application for graphene-based inks and paste. In this case, the graphene-infused paste is used in the “thick film” process that layers micron-measured sheets of conducting, resistor and dielectric paste onto an insulating substrate. The terms “ink” and “paste” are used interchangeably in the industry, depending on the viscosity of the material. Graphene powder for the paste used in the thick film process is produced in marketable volumes through a unique plasma interface with nano carbon particles that Perpetuus has perfected.
Price-volatile silver and copper have dominated the conductive metal space previously, but graphene, with its superior conductivity and temperature tolerance, is an ideal alternative, explain Heraeus/Perpetuus’ spokespeople. Thick film technology is used to produce electronic devices such as surface mount devices, hybrid integrated circuits and sensors for the automotive industry, including the sensors that release air bags.
Pennsylvania-based Dean Buzby, who leads Heraeus’ global marketing effort for the new product, says it’s early in the process to announce a deal, but initial commercial feedback is very favorable. He adds he’s working with a major electronics applications company on a significant long-term buy. “Our 20-year licensing agreement with Perpetuus allows us to offer a higher quality thick film product on an industrial scale able to satisfy worldwide demands at a more affordable cost based on our high-volume access to graphene-based powder,” he says.
The future, when it comes to graphene-based ink, appears to be now.
Publication Journal: Toby Sainsbury et al., Production of few-layer graphene by microfluidization, Published 22 February 2017 • © 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd, , ,