How NanoExplore are eXploring graphene production

An image to illustrate graphene production

SciTech Europa met with NanoXplore’s Dr Soroush Nazarpour at the IDTechEx Show! to discuss graphene production and how NanoXplore is planning to expand.

Dr Soroush Nazarpour is the founder of NanoXplore (a graphene company, a manufacturer and supplier of industrial volume graphene powder using low cost, proprietary technology) and has been President and CEO since 2011. He has extensive experience in advanced carbon nanomaterials, device physics, materials processing and integration, and is an acknowledged expert in the field of graphene. He is co-author of, Graphene Technology From Laboratory to Fabrication, and his vision has created a unique advanced material company based upon graphene, with both distinctive low cost/high volume graphene production processes and innovative strategies for the integration of graphene into industrial supply chains.

At the event, the first graphene award for the ‘Most Significant Advancement In Graphene, CNT, Or 2D Material Commercialisation’ was presented to NanoXplore, with one of the judges commenting: “NanoXplore’s bold scale-up of graphene production should finally tear down the idea that graphene is just too expensive to be used as an additive in polymer composites for real-world applications.”

SciTech Europa met with Nazarpour in Berlin at the 2019 instalment of the IDTechEx Show! to discuss graphene manufacturing and how NanoXplore is planning to expand, both geographically and into new markets.

How would you describe the landscape in Europe when it comes to the manufacturing of high-quality graphene?

There are numerous graphene companies throughout Europe now. However, the scale of graphene production here is quite small in comparison to the rest of the word – particularly North America and China. In Europe, graphene production tends to be more specialised towards high-end and niche type applications rather than being geared towards large scale volume production. The production of graphene in other parts of the word, such as Australia, the Middle East, and Africa, cannot really be compared to that which exists in the West as it is still at quite an early stage.

From a graphene production business point of view, would you agree with the argument that it is not scaling up the production of graphene that is the problem, but rather the supplying end users with a material which is suited to their specific application?

It is important to look at the supply chain, as it depends on what markets you are talking about. If you look at the supply chain involved in thermoplastics, then once the raw material is supplied, compounding (the science of mixing) takes place, and you then create the ‘right’ product. But this is a little different when it comes to graphene. What is more, the market is looking at the performance cost/ratio. As such, a non-scalable and very customised-based production will increase production costs, and because performance requirements will also be higher that will also increase the chances of failure, all of which are barriers.

In industrial markets, it is best to produce two or three grades of product that are versatile enough that they are able to be used in numerous different applications, coupled with an innovative mixing technology to tailor the material to a specific product.

There has been a lot of discussion around areas such as performance, which is great, and if you can create a high enough grade of graphene along with an effective mixing technology, then certain performance improvements are possible. If this solution is valuable to customer and there are no other available solutions in the market, then you are able to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilo for that product.

Alternatively, a business can create a more generic, more versatile product with a favourable performance cost/ratio, and this is what the end user cares about, at the end of the day. Indeed, while academia have a focus on areas such as performance without considering the cost, end users are looking beyond that; they are concerned with keeping the costs as low as possible to be competitive, while making sure the supply is secure and reliable.

At NanoXplore, we therefore produce versatile graphene powders and pre-compounded graphene products in order to provide our customer with an innovative, ready-to-use product at a price that makes sense.

Given this perspective, would I be correct in saying that standardisation would be more of a hindrance than a help?

Standards are a result of market moving toward maturity, not vice versa. Hence a product that demonstrates a high value add to the users, will grow in terms of market share regardless of standards.

Today, customers are aware that many of the things that can be achieved with graphene do not happen unless you actually formulate the product. This is the case in plastics, epoxies, and rubbers. As such, they tend to focus on finding a reliable source of supply for graphene while working along with that supplier on mixing. A reliable source of supply means a graphene supplier that produces in large volume, with an industrial set up, in a consistent way. This is what graphene market needs, and this is how we can develop standards with certification bodies and apply them on those production plants.

Thus, there are two different business models which can be used. One sees a producer targeting a specific customer who has a problem that no other material has been able to solve. They work to use graphene to overcome that challenge, and they then want to charge a considerable amount for the material they have developed. However, this takes time and, in many instances, will mean that during this period the company has missed numerous other opportunities and has been unable to generate enough profit, and so the business folds. This is exactly what we saw with many carbon nanotube companies, and what we are also starting to see with graphene production companies.

The second model sees a company looking into real industrial application, and that means volume. They will look to replacing an additive in the market, and so while they are adding graphene, they are also taking something out. In our case, that is carbon black – and by doing this at the raw materials level we are able to offer a better process and better performance. This piques the customers’ interest – although that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to buy it – and they then start to evaluate how much benefit they can gain, and they want to know about the security of the supply and the health and safety and handling practices and so on. Once these questions are answered, business is generated, and the company can flourish.

In a general sense, what are the biggest hurdles when it comes to large-scale, commercially viable graphene? How will your company’s planned expansions help you to overcome them?

Scheduled Phase One operation of our fully-financed 10,000 tonne per year production facility in Canada will be completed in the first quarter of 2020. We are continuing to focus on using graphene to replace carbon black, and to achieve that at scale we must ensure our production cost is in line with our estimation. From the first quarter of 2020, we will be able to offer graphene at $10,000 (~€8,842) a tonne, which is on a par with the cost of other carbon-based additives such as expanded graphite, spherical graphite, carbon fibre and carbon black. At that price, which we believe is acceptable to our customers, both current and future, we are able to generate enough profit for NanoXplore to further grow.

Is the technology there for you to be able to ramp up to such a high level of production?

Producing graphene at this scale is, of course, technology-related. My background is in the carbon world, so I’ve seen all the problems that occurred there and have seen all the failed technologies. We knew from the beginning that industrial and large volume production is needed to reach to reasonable production cost. So, we developed the necessary technology 100% in house while avoiding techniques that are not scalable. It has been crucial for us to have scalability in mind from the outset; if the technology you’re developing isn’t scalable, then sooner or later you won’t have a business.
Of course, we are focused on low cost production and our source material, graphite, is low cost. Our technology is water-based and environmentally friendly, which enabled us to receive required construction permits easily. The business we have now is a result of that technology, and while that doesn’t mean that other companies won’t be able to follow suit, not all companies have the mind-set needed to work in this way.

How long did it take to develop that technology?

I started the company at 2011 and we became public in 2017. The technology was essentially ready by 2013, although at that point we were only making few milligrams. Even though we had scalability firmly in our minds, there were still challenges that we had to tackle. These were overcome through different iteration of the process. Our current plant is a modular plant, which means that we can replicate it plant anywhere in the world or can increase the number of lines as desired.

How important is your relationship with Mason Graphite when it comes to the security of the raw material?

The graphite we are currently using is 150 mesh, which is relatively cheap (around $1,000 a tonne).

As such, the relationship with Mason is of less importance than it once was. Nevertheless, we saw what happened in the graphite market in 2012, when there was a big jump in the commodity price. This can be a scary situation to find yourself in, because if the price of the raw material doubles it is impossible to transfer all of that on to your customers (if you do, they won’t be your customers for very long). The partnership with Mason was thus a part of our strategy, in that we ensured that we were protected against volatilities in the graphite price.

We also have another partnership with MartinRea International, which is the most important strategic shareholder of NanoXplore. MartinRea is one of the largest automotive parts suppliers in Canada and North America; they have more than 40 plants around the world and about 15,000 employees, conducting more than $4bn in sales annually. As such, they have been instrumental in helping us to improve our operations by bringing in lean manufacturing practices and so on, as well as, of course, providing us with better access to the automotive and transportation market.

As graphene production becomes increasingly achieved at scale and as an increasing amount of products begin to include graphene across a very wide range of sectors, how do you anticipate your own operations will evolve? Do you have any plans to expand further into Europe (outside of your Switzerland facility and alongside your ­­­US/Canadian expansion)?

NanoXplore now employs around 400 staff. Our main customers are in the transportation, industrial, and renewable energy markets. We have multiple plants in Canada, USA, and Switzerland and are currently expanding further in the USA, while we also have plans to expand in Europe in the mid-term, although, for the time being, that expansion will be contained in Switzerland, where we are already based and where we have good relationship with the municipalities in Geneva.

Moving forwards we are potentially looking at master-batch solutions, which involves actually incorporating graphene into the plastics ready for the market. We want to offer those type of products even further to different customers, which will mean that there will no longer be a need for a scientist to be involved in the process; it is ready to use as black masterbatch, this market is worth about $3bn worldwide. Black masterbatch is used in a lot of industrial applications, pipes, applications in the agriculture such as geomembranes; it is also used in injection and blow moulding for different applications such as automotive and electronic packaging market.

In terms of certification, we are working toward the maximum allowed within the REACH. We have also started the certification process for the TSCA and FDA in the USA for the packaging sector. Also agriculture market is growing in Europe and so there are a lot of opportunities for graphene-based black masterbatch.

Dr Soroush Nazarpour
President and CEO
Tweet @nanoxplore

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