The potential uses for graphene – the super-strong and malleable form of carbon discovered earlier this century – are extensive. Now the race is on to discover precisely what they are. Krzysztof Koziol has developed a ready supply of the stuff. His company, Cambridge Nanosystems, has built a production facility with the capacity to produce 10 tonnes of graphene a year. In an 18-year career devoted to this field, it is one of 12 firms he has started – although some have since closed down. “Not everything is successful,” admits the Professor of Composites Engineering at Cranfield University. But plenty has been.
Cambridge Nanosystems boasts a technique to produce graphene plus hydrogen gas from methane which means it can link to anaerobic digesters and dairy farms. Having raised significant overseas investment, it is also involved in a project aiming to repurpose North Sea oil platforms into hydrogen production facilities, which would be a further step towards the government’s zero-carbon emissions target.
Another of Koziol’s spin-out companies, Cametics, has developed ultra-lightweight, high-conductivity overhead transmission cables. It is already selling bespoke products to customers as well as through Ampashield, a joint venture struck with Belgian copper producer Aurubis. “It is amazing because nothing happened in this field for the past 120 years,” he says.
The product is a direct result of the work Koziol undertook during his University Research Fellowship, beginning in 2008, that has made him a leading expert in a fast-moving area where the UK heads the pack. For his research, he knew exactly what he wanted to try out with carbon nanotubes – a single-layer sheet rolled into a tube that resembles graphene. Worth £868,000, the University Research Fellowship funded his salary and he also raised 1.5m euros from the European Research Council to build a team. The University Research Fellowship was critical in winning support from the ERC, he says. “It was almost like a filter for them. I was already recognised.”
Koziol estimates that more than 35 jobs were created during the course of his eight-year fellowship, or 100 if temporary posts are included. Cametics has created 10 so far. He also leads Ultrawire, the pan-European development consortium with industry partners including National Grid and Peugeot-Citroën. He says: “The fellowship gave me full independence to take my career forward, the way I wanted it to go. I was able to focus on research of my choice and succeed with a speed that I would not have been able to otherwise.”