Concrete as a building material dates back to Roman times. So good were Roman concrete structures that many still stand today, including the Colosseum in Rome. However, construction may be one of many industries that could soon be revolutionized by graphene, dubbed the new super-material.
NovoCarbon Corp. has just announced the receipt and fulfillment of its first order from an undisclosed North American graphene manufacturer to supply it with high quality, micronized graphite.Graphene is the world’s thinnest material. First discovered by University of Manchester researchers in 2004, the one-atom thick material is commonly found in mineral graphite. Its structure gives it important physical qualities, including its efficiency as a conductor of heat and electricity, water-proofing and strength.
The materialization of a purchase order is a sign that the graphene industry is moving from the science lab to commercial production lines, according to NovoCarbon CEO Paul Ferguson. Several North American graphene companies are making products that are becoming an ingredient in super-strength cement and paint products.“The graphene market is starting to take off. I think that’s where these orders are coming from,” Ferguson told InvestorIntel. “For a low margin product (like cement), modest improvements (in costs) can have outsized results.”While the size of the initial purchase order is modest, the customer has indicated an intention to work in an exclusive supply relationship and to begin placing regular orders by early next year.
“This is perfect for us to get started with,” he said. “Because we want a nice small customer so we can get the gears turning.”Graphene coatings could find applications where water repellent surfaces are required such as ship hulls, for conductive uses like for cellphones as well as in scenarios where chemical resistance is needed, according to the American Coatings Association.
It could also be used in advanced batteries, solar cells and displays.Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) has developed a “graphene ball” for batteries through a mechanism that mass synthesizes graphene into a 3D form like popcorn.
The material enables a 45% increase in capacity, and five times faster charging speeds than standard lithium-ion batteries.One of NovoCarbon’s biggest challenges is building a supply chain. Despite considerable in-house expertise in Dr. Gershon Borovsky – a carbon material expert – the company has had to carefully craft together a network of partnerships to become a supplier of high-purity graphite in the United States.
The company is sourcing high-quality flake graphite from Brazil and relying on main partner Ashland Advanced Materials to make a purified, micronized graphite product at a plant in Niagara, New York. Supplying larger volumes of this quality of graphite will require the company to evaluate other technological production methods.
China’s graphite industry is notoriously associated with the use of hydrochloric acid and industrial pollution.The fact that graphene manufacturers are appearing in the United States underscores the relevance of US President Donald Trump’s executive order earlier this year to draw up a list of strategic materials where the US is reliant on foreign and specifically Chinese-controlled imports. The list includes graphite and several battery ingredients including cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements.
China produces 66% of the world’s graphite and consumes 35%, according to the Mineral Commodity Summary 2017 of the US Geological Survey (USGS). About a hundred U.S. firms consumed 24,200 tons of graphite valued at US$25.6 million in 2016, the USGS said. The U.S. imported 100% of its graphite primarily from China (34%); Mexico, (33%); Canada (18%); and Brazil (7%).
The Trump executive order may actually drive NovoCarbon’s revenue stream. Besides being in pole position to become a preferred supplier in the United States (because it manufactures there), the company is in line to win a contract from the US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the procurement arm of the Department of Defense (DoD), to provide advisory services. The DLA put out to tender for consultancy services to identify domestic supplies to reduce dependency on foreign imports, as an offshoot to the executive order.
Graphite could also become scarce. Graphite demand is about to enter a period of rapid growth and price escalation, according to London-based metals consultancy Roskill. Rapid growth in demand for natural flake graphite and synthetic graphite in the lithium-ion battery industry for electric vehicles is now forecast to drive graphite demand growth of 5-7% per year from 2017-2027, it said.
The inclusion of graphene in cement could ironically just be a starting point in matching the quality of Roman concrete. Roman concrete is of superior quality because its marine-based ingredients actually become stronger over time. Graphene-enforced concrete might get one over the Romans, at last.