50 Most Admired Companies of the Year 2021
The Silicon Review
“We utilize the highest-grade graphite available, which involves minimal purification and produces almost no waste in the process of conversion to graphene."
First Graphene Limited is the leading supplier of high-performing bulk graphene products. It has developed an environmentally sound method of converting ultra-high-grade graphite into the lowest-cost, highest-quality graphene in bulk quantities. It works with a range of universities around the world to develop graphene-enhanced products and associated intellectual properties, utilizing the company’s commercially available PureGRAPH® graphene additives. First Graphene is the world’s leading vertically integrated graphene producer.
The company was founded in 2014 and is headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, with global presence in Manchester, UK, and Singapore.
Interview Excerpt: Michael Bell
Market Gains Momentum For First Graphene
Australian-listed technology company First Graphene Limited (ASX:FGR), which pioneered a process to convert high-grade graphite to commercial-scale graphene, sees its work across a broad range of industrial sectors come to fruition.
The potential opportunities for graphene have been touted for decades.
The wonder material, which consists of single layers of pure carbon atoms, offers incredible strength, conductivity, durability, and impermeability properties, making it a valuable additive to a whole range of products to increase mechanical attributes.
However, turning a 2004 laboratory success to isolate graphene into commercial-scale manufacturing has taken a long time to master.
That all changed two years ago when First Graphene pioneered a process to convert high-purity graphite into consistent quality graphene at volume. The company subsequently launched its PureGRAPH® range of graphene additives to the market.
The initial focus of researchers was for graphene to be used in high-tech applications such as supercapacitors, precision electronics, and batteries to strengthen components used in the aerospace industry.
For First Graphene, however, the bigger commercial opportunities were evident in much larger, more mainstream industrial applications across sectors such as mining, construction, marine, and high-volume plastics and composites manufacturing.
Path From R&D To Commercial Success
Through its research division, based at Manchester University’s Graphene Engineering & Innovation Centre (GEIC) and its work with a range of customers around the world, First Graphene has identified, developed, and implemented graphene-enhanced products across numerous common industrial applications, including composite materials, elastomers and polymers, concrete and cement, and coatings.
The company is also looking at some of the higher-tech areas, including advanced research and development work with supercapacitors and hydrogen fuel cell applications.
But the core focus for large commercial uses has involved working with a range of foundation customers to perfect the development of products including graphene-enhanced swimming pools, safety footwear, personal protective equipment, and bucket wear liners for the mining industry.
The company has also developed a range of fire-retardant paints that capitalize on graphene’s protective barrier properties and is in the final testing phases with manufacturers of boats, surfboards, baskets used in aquaculture and pipeline coatings.
Year Of Transformation
Even with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the past 12 months have been a transformative period as the business evolved many of its research and development projects to a more concerted commercial growth focus and expanded global reach.
The retirement of the founding CEO, who was instrumental in developing the production process, and the appointment of Singapore-based Michael Bell as the company’s new CEO, came at an opportune time.
Mr. Bell has significant experience when it comes to commercial growth. He has previously worked in a range of high-growth industries, from privately owned businesses to multi-national corporations across a broad range of sectors, including consumer and commercial electronics, software, marine and offshore engineering, and defense. Earlier in his career, the New Zealand native was part of the team responsible for the expansion and significant global growth of telematics provider Navman Wireless, which was subsequently acquired by the Danaher Corporation.
Since joining First Graphene earlier this year, Mr. Bell has focused his attention almost entirely on progressing commercial opportunities in target sectors.
At present, the company has the capability to produce around 110 tons of its PureGRAPH® in powdered and aqueous paste formats and a pelletized masterbatch range that allows manufacturers to easily integrate graphene into plastic, rubber and elastomer-based components.
Given graphene is an extremely lightweight material, and most applications only require very small additions of graphene to realize significant improvements, the company is keeping up with global demand. However, the technology is highly scalable and ready to be rolled out to other international locations as demand increases.
“While the initial commercial deals and recent go-lives have involved end manufacturers, we are concurrently moving up the supply chain to work with material suppliers and develop our strategic distribution network with specialists in certain geographies and industry verticals,” the newly-appointed CEO confirms.
“That includes the recent announcements of MoUs with Advanced Material Development to progress work in the area of conductive inks, and a deal with New Zealand-based GtM Action to target the cement and concrete markets in that region.”
Sustainability And Innovation
First Graphene remains at the forefront of research and innovation. The company has recently developed and patented a novel process to convert certain petroleum feedstocks into high purity graphene, graphite, and clean hydrogen without any carbon dioxide or other pollutant emissions.
The process, which uses cavitation chemistry, has the potential to provide petroleum companies with alternative pathways as the reliance on combustible fuels such as diesel and gasoline declines and the electric vehicle market continues to grow. Among other uses, high purity graphite is in demand for use in the batteries that power EVs, while hydrogen can be used as a clean source of energy.
First Graphene is focused on improving sustainable outcomes across multiple industries. Michael Bell says the company utilizes the highest-grade graphite available, which involves minimal purification and produces almost no waste in the process of conversion to graphene.
“Our focus is on minimizing waste at every step in the value stream, from responsible mining and mineral processing operations right through to extending the functional life of products that incorporate our PureGRAPH® additives,” the CEO further adds.
“We are also actively pursuing opportunities in the renewable energy sector, not just in terms of energy storage applications for the electric vehicle market, but also in developing graphene-enhanced turbine blades for wind farms. Disposal of old blades poses a landfill problem, but by increasing the life of each blade, we can reduce that issue.”
First Graphene still maintains its first-mover advantage. Michael Bell says: “The company is the world’s only manufacturer of commercial quantities of consistent grade graphene, and we have an enormous opportunity to capitalize on our position.”
“In addition, we have the best research and development people globally and access to the world’s best facilities through the GEIC and other research partners, which means we can carry out advanced R&D and work with customers through the entire development lifecycle, from devising the most appropriate graphene formulations for the application to advanced testing.”
Mr. Bell says First Graphene is in the process of recruiting commercial specialists to focus on coatings, elastomers, and rubber applications, with a range of active and potential commercial opportunities in train in those areas.
The Leader Upfront
Michael Bell is the Chief Executive Officer of First Graphene Limited. He is an experienced commercial growth leader, having worked in a range of high-growth industries, including consumer and commercial electronics, software, marine and offshore engineering, and defense. He also was part of the team responsible for the expansion and significant global growth of telematics provider Navman Wireless, which was subsequently acquired by the Danaher Corporation.