The mountains of Trento provided a stunning backdrop for the latest Graphene Composite Innovation Day, held at the Foundation Bruno Kessler, Italy. Co-hosted by EIT Raw Materials, Hub Innovation Trentino (HIT), and the Graphene Flagship, the workshop focused on how graphene's benefits can be applied in the composites industry. Industry and academic participants shared ideas on how graphene can be used in composites for the automotive industry, in new energy technologies and to solve critical issues with supply of raw materials.
Both HIT and EIT Raw Materials support innovation and translating research into new technologies. HIT operate within a range of sectors in the Trentino area, while EIT are a European consortium with a focus on raw materials. "EIT Raw materials is an organisation that was created to specifically promote innovation in the field of raw materials," said Pier Luigi Franceschini, CLC South manager for EIT Raw Materials. Graphene's ability to provide multifunctional benefits to composites could reduce reliance on so-called "critical raw materials," an EC classification based on economic relevance and risk of supply; for example, minerals mined in areas of geopolitical conflict. "For this type of material, as well as toxic materials, there is this concept of trying to substitute them with new materials, and that is also part of the business of EIT Raw Materials," added Franceschini.
From Problems to Solutions
Daniele Pullini, Strategic Research Manager at Flagship Partner Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) Group Materials Labs described their vision for graphene's potential uses in the automotive industry. Of particular note were graphene-composite switches for dashboard panels. Circuits can be inscribed into the composite by laser-writing, reducing the amount of copper wiring needed in the panels. Pullini said that the workshop was a useful platform for finding potential collaborations: "The aim was to increase the connections with people, and present the bottlenecks that we face with our current internal development. We are hoping to find new solutions and meet new people for cooperating in future projects that sooner or later will turn into innovation within our business."
The benefits graphene adds to composites such as rubbers could provide added value in the aerospace and oil and gas industries. Graphene could improve sealants by making them more resistant to extreme temperatures and reducing permeability, but also providing piezoresistive sensing benefits to passive components. "For example, they can be used as an accelerometer, during launch of rockets or the vibration that is transmitted to electronic components – that is very critical in aerospace missions," said Luca Valentini, a researcher at the University of Perugia. "Industries general propose problems that we cannot imagine. Several times, we have the solution in the shed – but we don't know what kind of applications these ideas could be useful for," he added.
The stakes were raised in the second half of the day, during a competition in which four European start-ups pitched their companies to a panel of expert judges from industry and academia, for the chance to win €1000. The competition was a good opportunity for SMEs and start-ups to increase visibility in the composites community. "It is very important for the community to know about us, so that they can come to us with a problem and we can collaborate. I think this event is going to be very useful for us, we have had many people interested today," said Raquel Gonzalez, head of research and development at Graphene Tech (Spain), a producer of graphene powders, inks and masterbatches.
Simone Ligi's winning pitch for Graphene Flagship Associated Member GNext (Italy) described the steps his company have taken since they started in 2013. "We developed a method to produce our own liquid phase exfoliated graphene, but we decided to not sell just graphene," he said. Instead, GNext developed their own graphene product, identifying a space in the market for graphene-coated films in electronics packaging. Graphene can be used to replace the aluminium typically used in anti-static packaging, with reduced cost and environmental benefits. "It took over a year to develop an industrial production, which we made through a partnership," said Ligi, director and co-founder of GNext. "Because graphene is a new technology, our potential customers are looking for smaller samples. This partner built a pilot line for us, and we are now able to produce samples at industrial scale."
The workshop demonstrated the shared goals of EIT Raw Materials and the Flagship in ensuring that innovation is sustainable in Europe in the long term. "The idea of trying to connect with the Graphene Flagship came about because graphene is among the materials that we are also interested in, and since we have partners in EIT Raw Materials that are also working in the Graphene Flagship, I think it is quite a natural collaboration. I see this as the start of a collaboration between the two initiatives," said Franceschini.
Andrea Ferrari, Science and Technology Officer of the Graphene Flagship, and Chair of its Management Panel, added "We are pleased for this first collaborative event between the Graphene Flagship and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology on Raw Materials, with a strong focus on Innovation. This yet again another crucial step in our journey from the lab to the factory floor. This strengthens the recognition of graphene and related materials as key building blocks for future technologies"
Many thanks to HIT for providing the video from the event.