Our dream was to revolutionise both manufacturing and the way we live our lives by making graphene and other carbon nanomaterials available at large volumes and high quality.
When a group of people dream of doing something that others would regard as near impossible and yet they go ahead and do it nonetheless, they are often regarded as either brave, or foolish. However, we would argue that it is through dreaming and acting boldly that real and substantial changes happen in our world. Hence, the title for this article comes from the George Bernard Shaw quotation: You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not? .
In late 2012, our company said “why not?” to taking forward a novel idea we had formulated after several years of intensive research at the University of Cambridge and to turn it into a commercial business with a global reach. There is probably some truth in the statement that if the team had fully understood just how difficult the task would turn out to be, we would never have attempted it. However, not knowing in this case was a key ingredient to realising the dream. Cambridge Nanosystems decided to take a leap into the unknown and do something that no one had been able to do before: to produce both graphene and carbon nanotubes in very large volumes at a very high quality. We are already well on the way to realising this dream with our new high-volume production plant, which was opened in Cambridge UK in early 2015. The secret to this success lies, of course, in the restless commitment of our people to producing and commercialising these modern, promising materials.
A short history of carbon nanomaterials
Carbon, the key ingredient of carbon nanomaterials, exists on our planet in many forms: from the diamond that adds sparkle to an engagement ring to the graphite in the pencils we use to make notes. Another form of carbon, which was developed in the 1960s, is an indispensable component of today’s machines, ranging from the humble bicycle and the latest passenger aircrafts such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A380.
While carbon fibres  are an integral part of our daily lives, they also paved the way to developing and exploring application of other carbon allotropes . Thirty years after the development of carbon fibres, carbon nanotubes were discovered in early 1990s. Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon atoms, the single wall of which has a structure which can be thought of as a one atom thick carbon sheet rolled into a cylinder. Most single wall nanotubes (SWNT) have a diameter of a few nanometers (a thousand millionth of a meter), with a tube length that can be many millions of times longer.
The discovery of carbon nanotubes was followed with an emergence of another new material isolated from carbon atoms – graphene – in 2003. It was created by unrolling a SWNT cylinder into a flat single atom thick sheet of carbon in their form of a honeycomb lattice.
Both of these new forms of carbon – carbon nanotubes and graphene – are seen as materials of the future due to their enormous potential to substantially improve thermal, electrical and mechanical properties of a bewildering range of applications in sectors spanning automotive, aerospace, power supply, construction and other industries. But, the challenge in realising their potential has lay over the last few decades in the ability to produce them in large quantities and at a very high level of purity.
Early research and development
Our journey has began with focus on how greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, could be converted directly, in just one step, into a commercially viable and valuable carbon nanotubes. To break the gas down a thermal cracking process was used, as significant heat is required to break down the hydrocarbon gas into its constituent parts, carbon and hydrogen.
Our first manufacturing system utilised a rather bulky vertical reactor with a rather basic control system. However, within a year we managed to improve this both in terms of its size as well as its control systems. Thanks to this redesign the new reactor had a better control of the manufacturing process and the nanomaterial produced was consistently of a very high quality. The new reactor allowed the production of carbon nanotubes of a high purity at large volumes.
However, soon we also realised that the thermal cracking process, perfected in the new reactor, was still unsuitable for industrial scale production, because the efficiency of the reactor was not sufficient enough to cope with the high stability hydrocarbons, such as methane. Consequently, a new and more efficient way of splitting methane was needed if our team was to succeed in realising our dream.
At this point we made a strategically important decision. Rather than continue to try to refine the design of the existing reactor and its associated processes, as many others might have done, we looked for an alternative technology that could possibly be scaled to very large production volumes.
The key to us being able to do this was the amount of knowledge and experience that we had gained in graphene and carbon nanotubes production over the years. We knew of another company that had produced an efficient cracking system for hydrocarbon gases in an entirely different application, and based on that experience we came to the conclusion that with some modifications to our existing cracking system we could produce high volumes of graphene.
In late 2013, a collaboration was agreed with Felda Global Ventures Holdings Berhad (FGV), based in Malaysia. In November of that year, FGV announced that they would be collaborating with scientists from the University of Cambridge to pioneer the production of high-grade carbon nanotubes and graphene from hydrocarbons.
In retrospect, all the activities that allowed us to arrive at this point sound easy: with the technology needed being found and a collaboration partnership being agreed, all within a few months. The reality was far from simple, however, as the team had to explore many disparate avenues all at the same time, whilst having only a few employees at our disposal and in parallel coping with the business demands of setting up a new company. The outcome was worth all the effort, however: being able to produce high volumes of graphene at levels of efficiency and purity that would outperform any other existing process.
Although the UK has an outstanding history in both innovation and manufacturing, very few start-ups actually build a completely new manufacturing plant. Even a greater rarity still, and something which has not been done previously by any UK business, is when a start-up builds a production plant to accommodate the manufacture of a radically new technology at scale. Doing this type of development in a lab is one thing, but doing it at scale day after day at commercial volumes and at a consistently high quality is a massively challenging and non-trivial undertaking.
To cope with these demands we have grown from the four original founders to 16 people in just nine months and we are aiming to double this number by the end of 2015. Despite being still a very young venture, our business processes and procedures are already at a high level of sophistication that encompass safety, security and quality and are currently being scheduled to be ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 14001:2004 certified by September 2015.
To be able to do all of this, we had to set very stretching targets, but then serious global dreams do not come easy.