Materially Better
Materially Better
Antonio Castro Neto: Graphene Godfather on the Types of Graphene, Graphene-Kevlar Helmets, and the Future of 2D Materials

Antonio Castro Neto: Graphene Godfather on the Types of Graphene, Graphene-Kevlar Helmets, and the Future of 2D Materials

Antonio Castro Neto, dubbed the “godfather of graphene”, is a professor at the National University of Singapore. There, he directs two research institutes in 2D materials and functional materials, the latter as a co-director with Konstatin Novoselov, a Nobel laureate. He has also cofounded these graphene startups: 2D Materials, MADE Advanced Materials, and Graphene Watts.

We talk about

  • the first meeting of scientists after graphene's discovery

  • a overview of graphene types including powders and films

  • his research at The Center for Advanced 2D Materials

  • how he cofounded a startup with a novel graphene manufacturing process

  • the challenge with dispersing graphene into composites

  • 2D Materials’s lightweight graphene-kevlar helmet

  • how Graphene Watts aims to develop lithium sulfur batteries

  • co-directing a materials research institute with Nobel laureate Sir Konstatin Novoselov

  • materials as dynamic elements that impact the world

Antonio is full of energy, especially as he chose to record this at 10pm Singapore time! His passion really comes through.

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In launching this podcast, there are two other episodes available today. Melik Demirel, pioneer in squid-inspired self-healing biomaterials, and Max Mundt from Insempra Bio on a revolution in matter and Insempra’s unusual approach to commercializing biomaterials.

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(05:06) The first meeting of scientists after graphene's discovery

(13:56) Graphene powders and films

(19:53) The Center for Advanced 2D Materials

(22:07) Cofounding a startup with a novel graphene manufacturing process

(25:54) Why graphene quality matters

(29:29) The challenge with dispersing graphene into composites

(35:27) 2D Materials's lightweight graphene-kevlar helmet

(38:58) Graphene ink in smart clothing

(40:58) How another startup he cofounded aims to develop lithium sulfur batteries

(48:27) Co-directing a materials research institute with Nobel laureate Sir Konstatin Novoselov

(52:42) Materials as dynamic elements that impact the world


Tsung: This is a conversation with Antonio Castro Neto, who has been called the “godfather of graphene”. He's the director of the Center of Advanced 2D Materials and co-director of the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials, both at the Univer National University of Singapore. There, Antonio is the distinguished professor in the Department of Material Science Engineering and Physics, as well as a professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He earned his PhD in physics at the University of Illinois.

Antonio has cofounded three startups in Singapore, all in graphene: 2D materials, Made Advanced Materials and Graphene Watts. He's full of energy, especially as he chose to record this at 10pm Singaporean time. His passion really comes through.

In this conversation, he tells us how he was at the first ever meeting of scientists after graph's isolation in 2004, what graphene is, the different types of graph, like powder and films and their properties, how poor quality graphene inspired him to cofound 2D materials, applications at his startups like graphene-kevlar helmets for military and motorcycle use and graphene in lithium sulfur batteries. Co-directing a research institute with a Nobel laureate and $200 million in funding, and the future of graphene.

I'm Tsung Xu, and this is Materially Better. This podcast is a series of conversations about new performance materials and their applications. For the first time in generations, I believe that new materials will play a big role in unlocking innovation and solving pressing problems.

And now here's Antonio Castro Neto.

There is so much you are working that I want to get into. But first what is graphene and what are some of the properties that people often talk about?

Antonio: Yeah graphene is essentially a monolayer of carbon, which means one atom thin material made out of pure carbon organizing a honeycomb lattice structure. And it has some very interesting properties. Like it's it conducts electricity and heat extremely well. It has a very strong, very large Young's Modulus or Spring Constant.

So the bonding between the carbon atoms are very strong, actually stronger than diamond. And it also because it's just one atom thing is extremely flexible. So you can say, we used to say that graphene is just pure surface. It has no bulk. It's just the thinnest material you can think of.

Tsung: What led to your early interest in graphene?

Antonio: I'm a theoretical physicist by training. And in the early days of graphene, what interested me was the electronic properties because the electrons in graphene, they not, they don't propagate in the same way. Electrons propagate, propagating other materials like metals and so on.

Usually the, in a metal like gold, silver, copper, zinc, whatever a good approximation. You can think of electrons as free particles like moving. They have a mess, they have a momentum and they move around pretty much freely. And they obey, to a large degree a sort of classical description.

Of course there are quantum mechanical particles, but they are described in first approximation as classical particles. Now, graphene is completely different. The electrons they're, they don't have mass. They have speed, but they don't have mass. And they are highly quantum mechanical in nature. In some it mimics properties of particles in high energy physics. So the initially for me trying to understand how these electrons behave was the main push to look into.

Tsung: From that early research how have you seen the research for graphene change and how has your interest in graphene changed uh, over time.

The first meeting of scientists after graphene's discovery

Antonio: Yeah. So, very interesting. You It's one of the things of being the right place, doing the right thing and how this, Maybe coincidence at the time this was 2004. I was very interested in graphite. And of course graphene is derived from graphite by when you take graphite apart.

Graphite is essentially stack of graphene layers. So the starting point to study. Graphite is graphene. So I was studying graphite at the time, and then I saw the paper by Andre Guy and Konstantin Novoselov. And I said, Wow, okay, so this is something I can understand and it looks very interesting and I jumped on it.

So I remember, very well, this was. Late 2004, around October, November, something like this. And then in March, 2005 there was a meeting of the American Physical Society in Los Angeles. And there was the first graphene session ever on a scientific meeting, and I was lucky enough to be present.

There were maybe 15 people in a room, very tiny room, very few people and, but all the people who were in that room that actually had a big impact in the field. They were like the founders of the field, Andre Geim was there. That's where I, when I met Andre GEim initially really Dresselhaus, Philip Kim, all these people just sitting there and talking about the material that was just essentially brought to light just a few months earlier.

And at the time I was a professor in the United States and I had this opportunity to see the whole field grow exponentially. Uh, In a very short period of time, maybe 2005, 2006, instead of 15 people, you had already 50 people and then next year a hundred people, and then you know, a thousand people.

And this was very fast. There was a whole community of scientists. At the time working on carbon nano tubes and graphite and fullerenes, all this carbon related community who were ready to move into graphene. So there was this huge motion of this community towards graphene and I was very lucky to see the whole thing that finally got to the Nobel Prize in 2010.

And I was there at the Nobel Prize. And so it was amazing to see and to live through this Revolution in material science. It was very interesting and unforgettable.

Tsung: Yeah, it originally is amazing when you think about the way you describe those early meetings, 15 people, 15 researchers in a room and as you said, the impact that they have

had since it almost seems sort of exponential growth interest very much like startup or, gets or an industry that gets traction.

And I don't think there's many materials perhaps even historically where you could think of that kind of interest ramping up as quickly as did.

So fascinating.

Antonio: It is true. It was very fast.

Tsung: Yeah. Yeah. And just for folks that don't know, just wanted clarify carbon tubes being effectively graphene, that's one sheet of graphene that's folded up and wrapped into a cylinder and fullerene being the spherical form of single layer graphene, if I'm getting that correct.

Antonio: Yes.

Tsung: Yep just for folks that weren't sure about that. How did you get the name, the godfather of graphene?

Antonio: Oh, I guess because Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were the parents and I was the godfather,

Tsung: That's

Antonio: Some reporter called me that name , and I guess that's the reason.

Tsung: That, That's great.

And yeah, we'll come back to that. You've had that history with with both of those Nobel laureates and and now you have obviously active research with one of them, so we'll come back to that. as well.

Antonio: Right.

Tsung: What are the different types of graphene and what are they for? for?

Antonio: so you know, the very early on we realized that this material had. A huge number of possibilities to be used in a big number of things. It took us maybe 10 years to get to understand the science of this material. And the reality is that you cannot develop technology if you don't understand the science.

And for 10, 15 years we've been understanding the material to more, to a bigger degree of detail, to the point that now we really understanding and we really know what this material is capable of, right? So the science is one part of the story.

The other part of the story, of course, is How do you use this material on something which is useful? It can be it can be commercialized, and so on and so forth. Science is much faster than commercialization, right? Semiconductors. Big example of that, right? So in the 1950s, essentially people really understood extremely well how semiconductors work.

But they only became really like a commonplace. Industrially in the 1970s. So it took around 20 years and I fin is just following the same kind of journey, so now we are getting to the level of maturity. That this material can be really used in interesting things, and it ha it's already being used.

It's being used in composite materials. It's being used in construction, it's being used in electronics. It's being used in many different things. Graphene is making its way into people's life, but in a very, invisible manner. And I think that we pass this period of hype about the material.

And now we are on a very steady and growth in terms of where this material can be applied. And there are many industries around the world using this material.

Tsung: I read just the other day that Ford has something like 5 million cars today that have graphenein some sort of component engine covers and other various things. It already probably touches people's lives in some way. So I just wanted drill in a little bit there on the different types.

Graphene powders and films

Tsung: Could you talk a little bit about, say, graphene powders versus. Yeah. Powders, nanoplatelets being being the powder form. You've got you've got films, you've got wafers. Could you talk a little bit about those different types and why they're different

And how they're different.

Antonio: Yeah, So technically of course graphene is one atom thing layer of graphite where pure carbon and so on now and in practice. So there, let's say different grades of graphene and there are different methods of making graphene. And different starting points as well. So raw materials from which you make graphene.

So of course, as I mentioned, graphite, one way to make graphene is that you just take this stack of cards, which is graphite and you break it apart, and then you separate this and you make graphene powder. Or you can grade graphene solution or something like this. So of course when you are talking about a mineral, like a graphite you cannot separately separate this a hundred percent.

You cannot break it completely. 100% you can, but it would take, ages to do that. So industrially from the practical perspective, You can break this down to a few layers, and then you have some sort of statistical distribution of number of layers, size of the layers and so on. But this is no different for an instance, for instance, from the oil industry.

So for instance, if you think of crude oil, so you take crude oil from the ground it's not very useful. You have to refine. And when you refine the oil, you have the different products, Keine airplane fuel, gasoline, and so on and so forth. And they all come from the same material, which is screwed.

And what's the difference between them is essentially molecular weight. Is essentially the size of the molecules and you don't have a 1%, quantity of a given material. It's always some statistical distribution. So when you produce graphene powder, it's the same thing. You are producing a different number of layers, which is equivalent to different num, different molecular weight Uh, of the material. So there is an almost one to one correspondence to oil production and oil refining. So this is one way to get graphene. Essentially you have graphite, which is very common material over the globe. And then you break it apart. So this one, the other one is graphene. And graphene film, the starting point is completely different. you actually start with hydrocarbons that you get from refining crude oil and then using essentially catalytic reactions on metal surface. You can grow fumes.

Okay, so these films they are, they can be monolayer, they can be more than one layer as well, and they usually poly crystalline. Which means that, what you have is grains, which are put together on a continuous field, and these grains are oriented in different ways relative to each other. And of course when you have powder, you have single crystals. The whole flake is one crystal. In the fumes you have poly crystalline structure. So each one of these graphenes, let's say, have their, you own utility and their own applications, right? But the fundamental. Let's put this way, the fundamental element of all this is a single layer of carbon atomically thin. It's behind this all these different types of graphenes, let's say.

Tsung: Yeah and one of the things you touched on, so making the films, which I understand as a side point are also far earlier in their stage of adoption, the, amount of graphene used. Also higher, higher cost, but. To make those films from hydrocarbons, there are some alternates that are emerging, right?

And either in certainly low trl, but either in the research stage or even trying to be commercialized, where you're taking more sustainable feed stocks because graphene being made of carbon. There are other ways to source that carbon instead of hydrocarbon.

Antonio: Okay. Yeah. In principle, anything containing carbon can be made into graphene. The, the question is always going to be, Purity how pure this is, because you want the highest purity. We want the largest amount of carbon and how crystalline they fight on material release, right? So yes, absolutely.

There are many ways of doing that. As long as you have carbon, you can make graphene.

The Center for Advanced 2D Materials

Tsung: So you also direct research at the Center for Advanced 2D Materials. What is focus of the research that that that lab does?

Antonio: Yeah, so the center for Advanced 3D Material, the National University of Singapore was created 12 years ago, so it's a very mature research center and we had a big impact in the area of 2D materials. graphene is just one of thousands of other 2D materials that exist and we probably have not even studied hundred of those. And it's a huge number of different materials. In our center, what we were interested in the early days was exactly trying to understand the basic physical and chemical properties of these 2D materials. Going beyond graphene, right? Even looking beyond graphene. And of course we have reached a degree of maturity that now we're even looking at how to take this knowledge about 2D materials, about graphene and so on, and actually make that into products that you can take to the market.

Right. So a lot in the early days, were very focused on the basic science. Nowadays we're very focused on the utility on making products that are useful and. interesting for everybody's life and just to give you an idea probably we had in this period of time more than 200 invention disclosures on, on, how to use these materials into applications.

Tsung: Wow. And that's and that was at the center alone.

Antonio: yeah, this is just the center.

Cofounding a startup with a novel graphene manufacturing process

Tsung: All right. Wow. That's, yeah, that's a lot. Let's move on, to those applications then, and your 2D material startups. So the first startup you co-founded was 2DM what does 2DM and, and what is your role

Antonio: So this, this company has an interesting story. Never, I never thought I would start a company in my life. This, my interest was always science, and I never thought I would do that. What happened was almost like necessity. What happened is that we didn't want to produce graphene, but we wanted to study graphene, and then we started buying graphene for, from several producers around the world.

And we realized very quickly we bought graphene from a hundred producers or something like that. And then we quickly realized we're buying graphite, not graphene. We're buying sometimes good graphites, sometimes very bad graphite, but never graphene, right? And it was very clear to us that there was a sort of need for someone to produce this material so we could use it. You know, doing research in the center. So maybe seven or eight years ago, probably eight years ago I recruited someone Ricardo Vera, who was a research fellow in the institute to develop a method to produce graphene. And then we looked at literature and were not happy with the methods that people are using, and we invented our own.

And this method became essentially the basis for this company. So this company now essentially is it's seven years old already. This company is producing very high quality graphenein in tons scale. So it's incorporated here in Singapore, is producing here in Singapore. And the company is interacting with many other companies around the world in developing applications of of graphene.

So it was created out of need. It was not something that I thought, Okay, I'm going to create a company right now. We need, had this need. And, the research fellow is now the cto. Of the company. So now he's not only involved in, let's say the science part, but he's more involved in the market and into the product of graphene applications.

Tsung: So your role so you were a co-founder. are you how much, how are you engaging these usually with the company?

Antonio: Yeah, no I'm not an executive or anything like this. I'm just a founder and shareholder. Of the company. I don't deal with the everyday things of the company. I don't sign checks or anything like that, but of course, I'm in the board of the company and I follow very closely what's going on.

Why graphene quality matters

Tsung: Yep. And you mentioned the of graphene some of these other suppliers or most suppliers when you say quality, does that mean does that is there like a standard of that right below 10 layers is few-layer graphene. Can you talk a bit about what quality graphene the looks like?

Antonio: Yeah so this was a big issue in the early days. What do you mean by quality? So you need to define that. So in fact, we worked very hard in defining that in terms of the purity, the carbon content, the number of layers, the crystallinity, the size of the material, and all these things that characterize. The material. And in fact singapore was probably the first country in the world to issue a standard for graphene. And we worked on that, so actually it happened in our labs that we developed that. Then a few years ago, iSO also launched its standard, which essentially is very close to the ones that we launch in Singapore.

We, for us quality's fundamental. Actually quality is what drove us to start a company on because, we need that quality material to work with and we could not find in the market.

Tsung: That must be great that you're able to contribute to to to the development of that ISO standard as well.

How are the powders from are the powders from you guys are obviously at more at the end of the market in terms of pricing. How how do you and can you talk a bit more about what that quality a bit more about that that's different?

Antonio: Yeah, no, there are certain, again, quality defines the application, right? So if you have just give you an example. If you have very thick, layers of graphene then you may use into construction, but you cannot use in electronics if you have metals present in, in the in the material.

You may use it for a composite, but you cannot use it for batteries and so on and so forth. So the issue of quality, de determines the final product, right? In, in many ways. So the not only the, there is an absolute, You cannot say that there is an absolute quality. Quality is a relative thing. And when you're talking about applications, you have to think whether those properties fit the application you are looking.

Tsung: Yeah, that's a great point about relative quality and I think quality and your point before about when graphene was hyped, perhaps, because of the nuance here of quality of of types of applications by type, right? Those probably can be a bit misleading for folks that aren't as, you know, informed about graphene as yourself.

The challenge with dispersing graphene into composites

Tsung: 2DMs used in, or I've been tested, at least if I understand too, in some polyurethane foams. And I saw in the PDF sheet on the site that lower concentration of graphene actually improved performance. You talk about why that is the case?

Just for context I've also seen I've also heard that NanoXplore founder Soroush I'm, I'm, forgetting his surname, but the nanoXplore founder also said that with their graphene as well.

Antonio: Yeah, so, So usually in these types of applications, graphene is additive, so you already have a material. It could be a polymer epoxy, a resin, or concrete, whatever. And then you add the graphene to that in order to get properties that material originally doesn't have. For instance, epoxy, which is a glue which is used for many, lots and lots of applications.

It's electrically insulating, and it's thermally insulating, but there are applications of epoxy that would be great if you could make the epoxy electrically conducting or thermally conducting. So when you put graphene on the epoxy, you can make that so you have to control the disperson. And this is, most of the technology is associated how to you disperse this material on a matrix because you're talking about a nanomaterial and it's not so easy to disperse, right?

So how you disperse? What's the quantity You have to put things on to reach good numbers without losing the, the original. Properties of the material, like the, the epoxy, right? So this is this control over dispersion and and amount is what determines the final product.

So for instance, you, so you can make epoxy conductive, you can make concrete conductive, you can make materials which are normally insulating, conductive. And of course this has a huge advantage for certain applications. So it can graphene is a chemical barrier, so you can use that again on concrete to, to increase the resistance of the concrete against chemical attack.

So if you have this concrete in a environment that is chemically very reactive so graphene can be a solution. And this is why it's important to understand the material very well before, you start using it in application. People sometimes they have this naive idea that you just go there, you put a pinch of salt, a pinch of graphene, and then you get something great.

It doesn't work that way, so

Tsung: if only it was so easy. Yeah,

Antonio: Yeah, it's not that easy. And this is why you can make business out of. Because this know-how it's it has value. Let's put this way.

Tsung: Just for folks to know, concentrations we are talking about here are, anything from zero zero one-two percent up to few percent for these graphene polymer composites epoxy composites. Is that kind of correct?

Antonio: Yes that's is correct. It's tiny amounts.

Tsung: Tiny amounts. Yeah. tiny amounts but you're improving the, performance

benefits in, various ways.

Antonio: Because again, you are dealing with nano material one gram of graphene can cover three football fields.

If you could make a continuous film one gram, so you can imagine, and in, in many applications you don't use more than a gram. A gram is quite a lot of nanomaterial.

Tsung: .Yeah. Yeah. One gram of one item, thick carbon. So how much potential is there for improving TDMs graphene and the material properties over time?

Antonio: I think there is always room for improvement.

I think that the challenge right now is more on on the industry side because, it's usually it's quite. A challenge to, to convince, an industry to change their production line and add something new to get, more out of the product.

And I think that from that perspective, from the scientific perspective, graphene is very mature. But I think that in, in the industrial perspective, we are still in the early days. To be honest with you, I think that graphene is, is becoming more present, but it's going to take at least 10 more years for it to be really present on many things in our everyday.

It takes time. These things, do not change very quickly.

2DM's lightweight graphene-kevlar helmet

Tsung: Yep. And let's look at a few specific applications. One was textiles slash apparel. And in this case, 2DM announced a graphene-aramid, which a Kevlar composite helmet for defense purposes.

Can you talk a little bit about that.

Antonio: Yeah, so this was an interesting story. They, u usually, helmets using the military are very heavy. If you have ever seen a helmet, it's several kilograms that you have the soldier or the policeman, whatever has to carry in the head because the helmet has, it has to be able to sustain, a bullet coming at two, 300 meters per second, and so on and so forth. So the idea was, okay. So we know that graphene is great for absorbing shock. And this is also related with the physical properties of this material because it's a membrane so it can easily absorb energy and disperse energy very easily.

And then of course to we thought, why not put this on the helmet? And the results are very interesting. So they make helmets, which are 20% lighter than normal helmets, but can, that can sustain, a bullet coming from I dunno, some machine gun in the same way. And for anyone who needs this helmets to stay alive, to 20% reduction in weight is a huge number, but, back to the, you were asking about volume.

It's less than one gram per helmet, right? So less than one gram of graphene per helmet can reduce the weight by 20%. It's a huge change.

Tsung: Yeah it's just fascinating. It's, it's hard to wrap your head around that in a sense, because it your head around that Yeah. You're talking about such small amounts, having such a big impact and in terms of like and on your head. I've never worn a military style helmet, but I could just imagine how much that I could just how much weighs over time. Right, right.

Antonio: It's heavy.

Tsung: Yeah. And just having to wear that if you're, if, even if you're, in training, but certainly if battle like all day, every day for, weeks on end, I that's, ...

Antonio: But now they're not. They're moving away from military helmets to motorcycle helmet. Again, same story, right? If you can make a lighter motorcycle helmet with graphene, there is huge advantage for, people who like to ride motorcycles.

Tsung: And there's many types of new mobility, new micro mobility that would probably benefit form too. Is that something that two 2DMs Is looking at next, that, you mean?

Or is

Antonio: They're working on that yes,

Graphene ink in smart clothing

Tsung: Very cool. Have you seen any compelling examples of using graphene for smart clothing or wearable?

Antonio: there are many actually, because one of the great properties of this material is that it, it absorbs radiation in the infrared. And which is exactly, the radiation human bodies a meat. And there are several companies around the world using graphene ink on textiles in order to produce like smart clothing.

That, keeps your body temperature constant no matter what. And if you, on top of this think that graphene is also conductive, you can use the same as a sensor of body. So you can wear something that not only is keeping your, the temperature constant, but also monitoring. What's happening to your body?

So I think that, to be honest, I think this is the future. I think that in the future we're going, we're not going to need so many clothing, maybe we just need a few that change shape, change, color, whatever. And we can choose whatever we want depending on our mood, you know or something like that.

And at the same time, send information to our smartphone about how our heart rate, our, whatever, whatever information you want. So I think this is, it's the way to go actually.

How another startup he cofounded aims to develop lithium sulfur batteries

Tsung: One of the other companies you've co-founded was Graphene Watts which is developing lithium sulfur batteries with graphene. Why focus on lithium sulfur as a chemistry?

Antonio: So this is one of the things, it's my personal, interest in sustainable materials, right? As the current battery technology is, uses a lot of metals like cobalt and nickel and so on, and these materials are there is a social part of this, right? Because they usually, these materials are extracted in mining poor countries where they use children to dig the ground.

All those, but also as waste is terrible. It's a terrible waste. Heavy metal go into the water system and so on and so forth. I've been always mindful of the environmental issues. And, we try to, I try the best I can to look at technologies which lead to sustainability and are environmentally friendly.

And of course a sulfur is a very a common material on Earth, right? Volcanoes produce huge amount of sulfur. And it has this theoretically sulfur leaking batteries, has have the huge energy capacity store, a lot of energy, and There, but there is a huge scientific problem with those batteries, which is that when you put the battery to work, it produces this sulfides and these sulfides end up short circuiting the battery eventually.

And we found a way to include graphene into battery and graphene circumvent, stops this sulfide shuttling problem, how, how it's called. So now we have batteries that have, are running for more than 7,000 cycles. And this is a breakthrough. If you look at normal batteries, you know when you buy them, they only run a few hundred cycles, maybe a thousand cycles, but 7,000 cycles is unheard of, and it's just because it's a combination of materials, which is very special. So all the technology is essentially finding out how to put these materials together, make they cooperate to get the result that you want. So this Graphene Watts was exactly created with that purpose.

Tsung: Yeah. 7,000 cycles is, a lot. If you are, if the car's doing 300 miles, that's, 2 million mile car, right?

What are the challenges, barriers the challenges see lithium-ion, lithium sulfur batteries with graphine being commercialized?

Antonio: I think that the greatest challenge these days is that the battery space is overcrowded. So essentially people only talk about making giga factories and stuff like that. And there is no big evolution on the electrochemistry technology of batteries. So people want to produce lots and lots of batteries because the market is demanding that.

But in terms of the evolution of the batteries, the progress has been very slow and they, companies want to make money fast, so they are not really investing, a lot in new technologies. In terms of batteries, if you talk to the big battery producers and you'll try to convince them, they tell you, Oh, look, we already have seven batteries in the pipeline. Your battery is going to be number 10, right there is. So there is the whole let's say financial aspect of this industrial change, which is quite complicated.

The only way to get into this is to find niche applications and introduce yourself there and grow doing niche applications instead of trying to compete directly with traditional battery technology.

Tsung: I couldn't agree more. Can see Sila Nanotech as an example of that spending like 10 years thereabouts in And now they finally have silicon anode technology in a small, wearable device. a small fitness wearable called Whoop Whoop bands. But is Graphene Watts, are you starting to find or talk to folks and partners about int integrating the battery into potential niche markets?

Antonio: Yeah. So actually, we are talking to a lot of people. We're very interested in finding new markets, new applications. We're building a state of the art battery production lab at National University of Singapore. This is, it's going to be an amazing facility and we're going to be able to produce enough prototypes to actually to share.

With several different industries in order to gather more interest because it nowadays, it's not just the technology. You really have to have the product and people have to try your product to see how good it is. So it, it's an extremely competitive, market. You have to be at the cutting edge, otherwise you have no chance to of survival.

Tsung: Yeah. So much funding, so, much interest, but much in space much that's why so many folks are so excited about it.

Antonio: And it's a very important for the world.

Co-directing a materials research institute with Nobel laureate Sir Konstatin Novoselov

Tsung: Yeah. Couldn't agree more. You are also a co-director you at the, Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials with the Noble Laureate. Sir Konstantin Novoselov what are you most excited about in your work there with him?

Antonio: That's a completely different area it is still material science. In the, in, in the new institute, we're looking not only at two dimensional materials, but we are looking at materials in general. And we are using machine learning and artificial intelligence to actually create materials on demand.

But that out of equilibrium properties, which means, and this is why we call functional intelligent materials, which are materials that respond on their own to environmental changes. Okay? One example. We created a new class of 2D materials called 2D electrolytes. And these materials are such that when you put them in water, they have these functional groups that ionize and but they, the material is flat.

In water like membranes, 2D membranes, floating water. But then when we change the pH of the water, these materials actually fold on their own. They transform chemical energy into mechanical energy, and then they can fold and you ask what this is good for. This is good for things like drug delivery. For instance, so you can encapsulate some medicine which is sensitive to pH and big example is insulin.

One of the reasons you cannot, diabetic people cannot take insulin pills is that insulin is very sensitive to the pH when you swallow, when it goes through your stomach, the low pH of the stomach essent. Destroys the insulin. So you can imagine a pill which is encapsulated with these two D electrolytes.

When it's at low pH in the stomach, it's encapsulated. So the, and there is this chemical barrier that doesn't allow the assets to attack the insulin, but then when it gets to the intestine, which has higher pH, then it opens up and delivers the insulin to the intestine. So it's a kind of, the idea is the material is its own sensor and knows what to do when the environmental conditions change.

And we're doing this for many different things, and the way we're doing in this is actually using, machine learning. So heavy computation to actually predict, what kinds of materials that can be used in how you put these materials together, and so on and so forth. So it's it's again, material science, but with a more artificial intelligence, machine learning perspective.

Tsung: Yeah. That's really fascinating the way you described that, and, and, just I forgot mention too, you guys the, research center has secured significant funding NUS I think it was a hundred million dollars Singaporean dollars, is that correct?

Antonio: Yes, a hundred million from the Ministry of Education and a hundred million from, the university.

Materials as dynamic elements that impact the world

Tsung: How do you think graphene might change how we live and work in the next, lets call it 15 years?

Antonio: As what I said before, I think what it's going to be, a silent presence, I think essentially it would be part of our lives. It's going to be a common thing, but we'll not see it. Like any nano material, you cannot see it. It's going to be present everywhere. It's going to be like plastics, hopefully not with the environmental issues of plastics, it's going to be it's going to have this kind of presence, and I don't think it's going to be with much fanfair. I think it's going to be something that will happen, slowly and continuously over the next, decade.

Tsung: Yeah, it's the 2020s is going be an exciting for new materials for sure. Just to wrap up people help you and, what you're doing? doing?

Antonio: I think that there, are so many, we're doing so many different things, right? I think that I hope that people can join forces to develop material science to the next level because, the reality of the world today have so many issues, so many challenges, environmental challenges, energy challenges, water, and there is no way to solve these problems without creating new materials that can address these issues directly. So it's not a software problem. Software can help, but it's not a software problem. It's a hardware problem.

It's how we modify the way materials interact with each other and we get the properties that we want. So materials are not static elements of our world anymore. They are dynamic elements of the world. And I think that it's very important that people participate and, meet the challenge of the world issues. I think it's our responsibility as scientists, engineers, human beings, even to actually face the challenges and not be afraid of finding solutions because the world is not in a nice place right now, global warming and pollution and all those things.

And I think that we have this responsibility with our planet.

Tsung: That's really well said. And we also have, as pointed out, these new tools, new materials and others to, to help with that. I don't think I think feel optimistic, but be acting contributing to that in some way.

So how can listeners connect with you, LinkedIn or otherwise online?

Antonio: Just go to the, institute website, to the center website we are easy to find and and contact us if you are interested in joining the center, working with us, collaborating with us. We're open and we're, we very much like people's, people with new ideas who are interested in making a mark in this world.

Tsung: Fantastic. I'll link to those the episode description. Thank you so Antonio. This been a really great chat.

Antonio: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here.


Materially Better
Materially Better
Conversations on new performance materials and their applications with founders, scientists and leaders. Hosted by Tsung Xu, a repeat founder, blogger and venture partner.