Deep Dives

Graphene’s Promise Becomes Concrete

Credit: SOM-UoM

For almost 20 years the scientific community has talked about how graphene, a super strong, super thin, and super versatile new material could change the way products are made. That promise is literally about to become concrete.

Graphene Innovations Manchester (GIM), a scale-up located in The University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), has entered into a $1 billion deal with Quazar Investment Company to create a new company called GIGA Graphene Technologies in the United Arab Emirates. The new company aims to build a GIGA factory and produce premium, environmentally-friendly products using advanced 2D materials, including its GIM Concrete, its breakthrough graphene-enhanced concrete that does not need cement or water, cures quickly and can be made using recycled materials. It is one of the most ambitious projects to date to commercialize graphene.

“This is a tipping point,” says Vivek Koncherry, PhD, founder of GIM, which designs graphene-based compounds and production systems that allow partners to commercialize graphene at scale.  “You need investment to scale. Now graphene can have real impact on global problems.”

Potential uses of graphene are wide-ranging. Among other things the new material could be used to increase the lifespan and decrease the charging time of lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors; improve the propulsion and thermal management of satellites, making them cheaper and more efficient; replace current desalination technologies; make pipes and storage tanks corrosion-resistant; develop stronger adhesives; create flexible, low-cost, transparent solar cells that can turn virtually any surface into a source of electric power; to develop optical communications and transparent circuits that can be bent and twisted and build bigger and lighter wind turbines and more resilient space habitats.

In addition to sustainable GIM Concrete, GIM has developed GIM Hydrogen. a graphene coating compound that is used in conjunction with GIM’s proprietary graphene infused carbon composite containers, to enable GIM to make what it says is the world’s first Type V graphene enhanced hydrogen storage containers. Applications include hydrogen storage for vehicles and for buildings.

GIM has also built a prototype of a space station habitat using graphene and carbon composites (see the rendering pictured here).

While it is spearheading the drive to use graphene to solve problems and scale-up its use, GIM does not produce graphene itself. Up until now the industry hasn’t been able to produce graphene in mass quantities but it appears as if that is also about to change.

A Game-Changer

If pundits are right graphene will move from being a rare component in niche products and applications to broad market penetration by 2025 and, by 2030, be as disruptive as silicon was back in the early days of computing.

Developed by two researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov – whose work won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 – graphene is incredibly stable and very thin, yet also a strong conductor of electricity, heat, and light. The wonder material is such a game-changer that it has sparked a global race to unleash its potential. Governments around the world are pumping money into its development, with the aim of moving the new material out of labs into commercial products.

For example, The Graphene Flagship project, launched with a €1 billion budget in 2013, is part of the EU’s largest ever scientific research initiative. It has already placed around 100 products on the market and launched 18 spin-off companies, attracting €140 million in private funding as of September.  In addition to venture capitalists the project is increasingly attracting the attention of established companies.  About 50% of Graphene Flagship’s partners are now industrial firms such as ABB, Nokia, Airbus and BMW.

A Concrete Deal

GIM’s work in developing graphene-enhanced concrete – in what is being billed as the largest scale planned commercial use of graphene to date – could be a game-changer for the construction industry and make a significant dent in carbon emissions.

After water, the world uses more concrete than any other material. Global consumption of concrete stands at ~30 billion tonnes each year, relying upon the annual production of >4 billion tonnes of cement, concrete’s key binding ingredient.

The cement industry is responsible for ~2.5 Gt of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to ~7% of CO2 emissions. And the problem is only going to get worse. Future cement consumption is expected to grow ~10–20% to 4.7–5.1 billion tonnes by 2050.  Concrete also requires vast amounts of water, using up almost 10% of industrial water.

GIM Concrete consists of a fusion of graphene, polymers, and additives. What makes it innovative is its manufacturing process, which eliminates 88% of CO2 emissions by abstaining from the use of cement or water, says Koncherry. Instead, GIM will recycle some of the 300 million tons of plastic that end up in landfills and uses the polymers as binders and fillers for concrete. “Since we use so much concrete it is the best way to stop any plastic from going into landfills or into the oceans,” he says.

In recognition of its efforts, GIM won the Innovator Year Award For Excellence in Sustainability on November 9  in a competition organized by UK magazine The Spectator.

GIM Concrete not only addresses environmental concerns, it also boasts up to four times the compression strength of traditional concrete, is 30% lighter, and cures in two to four hours, compared to the 28 days required for traditional concrete, says Koncherry.

Making concrete 100% green requires new factories to be built -hence the plan for a Giga factory in the Emirates – but existing factories around the globe can be retrofitted to use GIM’s technology to make concrete out of 85%  recycled material and 15% virgin material, says Koncherry. GIGA Graphene Technologies, the joint venture, is looking to collaborate with existing cement factories around the globe, he says.

Given its trillion-dollar scale and continued global use, cement and concrete decarbonization represents both a massive business opportunity as well as possibly one of the most actionable and scalable methods for reducing global CO2 emissions, according to the venture firm 2150.

It is not surprising then that GIM is far from alone in trying to decarbonize cement. A whole variety of approaches are being attempted by startups ranging from concrete curing to replacing cement kilns with bioreactors. Some are adding graphene to concrete. For example, Concrene Ltd., a spin-off from the University of Exeter, and the University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC),  has developed an add mixture which incorporates graphene into concrete to increase the material’s strength and water resistance and reduce the cement content.  The UK’s Nationwide Engineering Research and Development (NERD) and GEIC have separately formed a company called Concretene, which is developing its own graphene-enhanced admixture for concrete, engineered to improve performance and sustainability. “It is a volume market that is going to grow exponentially,” says Koncherry.

GIM’s ambitions don’t stop there. Koncherry foresees large demand for hydrogen storage in vehicles and eventually in aerospace. Hydrogen can’t be stored in metal structures due to an issue called embrittlement, which leads to leaks. Graphene coating on storage devices offers higher leak resistance and has proved to be safe in lab testing, says Koncherry. GIM envisions testing the technology in off-the-road vehicles, such as tractors, because it will take time to get regulatory approval for use in automobiles and the aerospace industry, he says.

GIM has also developed a sustainable waste upcycling platform, utilizing graphene as an additive to transform ground waste tires and plastics. This approach allows for the creation of high-quality, durable products through traditional manufacturing processes, optimizing both performance and sustainability, he says.

“Right now, though, the market pull is for concrete,” says Koncherry.

Revolutionizing Traditional Manufacturing

If BeDimensional, an Italian deep tech company which produces two dimensional materials including graphene, has its way the manufacturing of lots of other graphene-based products won’t be far behind.

The company, a spin-off of the Graphene Labs of the Italian Institute of Technology which has raised over $20 million in public and private funding, is creating new materials aimed at three areas: coatings and multifunctional composites; energy; and lubricants through partnerships with companies such as VARTA in the battery sector and global energy company Enel in the photovoltaic sector.

The company says it is ready to scale up operations. “In 2024 the world’s first industrial line capable of producing graphene and two-dimensional boron nitride on the scale of tons per year will be ready in our Genovese facility,” the Italian company’s CEO Vittorio Pellegrini said in a press release. “The technology and expertise of BeDimensional’s scientists represent a unique approach to the production of graphene and other two-dimensional crystals that can revolutionize traditional manufacturing industry methods.”

BeDimensional, like many of the companies in the University of Machester’s graphene innovation ecosystem including GIM, is affiliated with the European Commission’s Graphene Flagship project.

The Italian company, is “revolutionizing European industries by harnessing the power of graphene and related materials,” Kari Hjelt, Head of Innovation of the Flagship project, said in a press release.

How Mass Produced Graphene Might Be Used NearTerm

A September event in Sweden celebrating the Graphene Flagship project’s 10-year-anniversary, included demonstrations of how mass produced graphene might be used, including a point-of-use water filter with hollow graphene fibers for filtering emerging contaminants,  graphene composite pipes with integrated sensors for detecting fires and ruptures as well as cost-effective highly efficient perovskite solar cells enhanced with graphene that surpass the current state-of-the-art of solar cells.

In November a consortium of 11 partners from six European nations officially launched the GRAPHERGIA project, an ambitious 3.5-year research and innovation endeavour, funded by €4.5 million under the banner of Horizon Europe’s Graphene Flagship initiative. Aimed at redefining the integration of energy solutions into everyday life, GRAPHERGIA’s stated goal is to transform how we use and store energy, marking a significant milestone in the journey towards a climate-neutral future.

GRAPHERGIA’s goal is to develop and deploy cutting-edge graphene-based materials into energy harvesting and storage devices. These advances will enable scalable and cost-efficient production of two-dimensional (2D) material technologies for a wide array of applications.

The project kicked off November 2 with a commitment to pioneer the domain of smart textiles. “We envision a world where your clothing does more than just look good: it powers your devices, acts as a sensor and connects you seamlessly to the Internet of Things,”  Prof. Spyros Yannopoulos, the project coordinator for GRAPHERGIA, said in a press release. “Imagine e-textiles that not only adapt to your body but also charge themselves. This is the future we are creating.”

The second key area of exploration for the GRAPHERGIA project is the development of next-generation electrodes for Li-ion batteries. By leveraging the consortium partners’ proprietary technologies, GRAPHERGIA aims to capitalize on the unique properties of 2D materials to enhance battery life and performance, while maintaining an environmentally friendly footprint.

“As we move from current technology readiness levels to higher grounds, GRAPHERGIA stands at the forefront of materials engineering,” Yannopoulos was quoted as saying the press release. “Our collaborative effort aims to bring pilot-scale innovations to the marketplace, setting new benchmarks for the energy sector.”

The Next Frontier

Longer term, graphene is expected to be used in space, says Koncherry. The International Space Station will be retired in this decade and a replacement will be needed. Graphene is a great conductor of heat and can be used for the thermal management of the station. 2D materials can also help with radiation shielding and reduce the impact damage of mini meteorites, he says. Eventually people might live in graphene-enhanced composite structures in outer space. GIM has already built a prototype of a space habitat in collaboration with architecture and planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), an indication that when it comes to graphene if entrepreneurs like Koncherry have their way even the sky might not be the limit.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.