A SCIENTIST whose company is developing a way of mass-producing a substance that can make cars and planes lighter has landed a £1.6m investment.
Dr Karl Coleman, who works in Durham University’s chemistry department, hopes to develop a £5m-plus business at Wilton on Teesside, which can make hundreds of tonnes of graphene.
Graphene is a sheet of carbon one atom thick, whose conductive, thermal and mechanical properties have seen it talked about as a replacement for silicon in transistors, plastic in television screens and carbon fibre in aeroplane fuselages or car bodies.
It is being extracted in small quantities using chemicals, but Coleman says his method of making graphene from ethanol is the only way of reliably making it in large enough quantities to be of use to industry.
He has won financial backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in his efforts to commercialise the substance and has signed up industrial partners Dyson and Procter & Gamble.
He said: “It is an exciting time for us. These are two big names in household products and this is a small product but they clearly see the potential of graphene. I can’t give details of the projects but they are about bringing graphene to use in glazing and plastics.
“They are also giving us money and we now have enough to keep us going for 18 months. We see our business grow by working with other companies. “
Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts said: “It’s now vital we harness the excellent research taking place in our world-class institutions to exploit the commercial potential of this astonishing material.”
The grant is part of a £21.5m package the Government is handing out to universities in Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge for research into other uses for graphene including making conductors and membranes.
“Graphene is a breakthrough advanced material that could change hundreds of the products we use in everyday life if this technology can be applied, as we think it can, across pretty much every sector,” said Dr Coleman.
“Effectively the things we use will be stronger, lighter, more flexible, have increased performance and potentially be much cheaper to buy – it’s that revolutionary.”
“The pilot production lines are already yielding some exciting results. Other methods are dirty and not scaleable whereas this is can be used easily by industry.” He is now six months away from the next phase of tests and production of larger quantities of graphene on Teesside which will in turn see the next tranche of his funding released by investors.
His work has led to the investment of £500,000 each from investors IP Group and the North East Technology Fund, and £200,000 from the North East Proof of Concept Fund, managed by North Star Ventures.
The first tranche of money saw the business move out of Durham University last year to Wilton and prove that graphene can reliably be made in kilos, and the second that it can be made in hundreds of tonnes.
The scientist, who is keeping on his day job part-time, says he hopes the factory will be able to be built in the North East and create around 15 jobs.
“We are hoping this will see real expansion very quickly. I can’t give figures but this will be a multi-million- pound business in a matter of months. It is all going to plan at the moment,” added Dr Coleman.