Rudie Campagne credits the discovery of graphene — the world’s thinnest material — with turning around the fortunes of his bicycle tyre company, Vittoria. About a million times thinner than a human hair, a single layer of graphene is 200 times the strength of steel.
Today, Vittoria includes graphene in its high-performance tyres, which account for 600,000 of the 7m bike tyres it produces every year, and help Vittoriacompete against giants like Michelin and Continental. “We have a much better grip, it’s much, much faster, it lasts longer, it has a better puncture protection,” the quick-talking Dutchman says.
Graphene makes the tyres 32 seconds faster than competitors on a 50km stretch, he claims. For professional cyclists who might win with a five or 10-second leads, that counts.
“These guys go 100km per hour downhill and you see all those hairpins, all those curves, and then when it gets rainy you see those horrendous accidents, because people don’t realise that bicycle racing is more dangerous than Formula One car racing,” says Mr Campagne.
Introducing graphene into tyre-making had a “positive effect” and he expects to double sales in the next five to seven years.
Mr Campagne, together with other investors, bought the small Italian company in 1988 after he resigned from a French electronics company. Having seen at first-hand the global electronics industry move to Asia, he switched Vittoria’s manufacturing from Italy to Bangkok, Thailand.
“The whole cycling industry moved out of Europe and out to the States, to Asia,” he says. “Then the next thing we did is we said we need to make high-tech [products] in a lower-cost country. That’s the secret.”
It was a chance encounter at a conference in 2011, with Giulio Cesareo, one of the founders of Italian graphene producer, Directa Plus, that set Mr Campagne in this innovative direction.
“We had the stamina and the deep desire to do it,” he says. “It’s innovate or die.”
Graphene was hailed as a “miracle material” upon its discovery in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester. The pair isolated a single layer of carbon atoms from graphite. Its strength, conductivity and elasticity led to speculation it could revolutionise electronics, from bendable mobile phones to replacing silicon in semiconductors.
After years of experimentation the attempt to commercialise graphene was given a boost by former British prime minister David Cameron’s government, which promised Manchester researchers £50m in 2011. Since then, though, the hype has died down and the material has yet to find the mainstream application that could take it to a mass market.
While the National Graphene Institute in Manchester has produced a graphene lightbulb and a car made of the material, its uses have so far been more prosaic. Its main application has been by the chemical industry as an additive in inks, industrial resins and coatings.
“With any new material you’re always going to have to go through a period of demonstrating efficacy and then value,” says Dr Philip Rose of Michigan-based XG Sciences, a producer of graphene nanoplatelets.
There are more than 35 suppliers of graphene worldwide and $200m has been invested in companies that produce it, according to IDTechEx, the market research company. Yet many of them have yet to make a profit.
Producers should focus on promoting one use of graphene rather than “trying to solve every problem on the planet”, says Catharina Paukner of Cambridge Nanosystems, which produces graphene using methane.
Graphene producers have been on a marketing drive to persuade companies of the benefits of the material, says Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, an analyst at IDTechEx. “It is a difficult industry: graphene is a substitute material in almost every application and substitution takes time,” he says.
Graphene faces a chicken-and-egg problem: without large-scale applications, money is unavailable to expand production, but larger manufacturers will not consider using the material for small orders.
Moreover, the different methods of making graphene mean that it varies in quality. Neill Ricketts, chief executive of Aim-listed graphene producer Versarien, which makes advanced materials, says: “Graphene is very similar to buying tomato sauce: there’s Heinz at one end and budget brands at the other.”
He adds that to make graphene commercially competitive, the price needs to fall, a factor that helped the adoption of carbon fibre. “Currently we produce small quantities of very high quality material at quite unrealistic prices for mass production. But as the volume increases that price and efficiency alters, which means it becomes more acceptable for everything.”
The cost of producing graphene has fallen by 90 per cent in three years and needs to drop by the same amount again, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs. Tech giants such as Samsung, Apple, and LG could be heavy users of the material, using it for items such as bendable screens and semiconductors, the bank says. Semiconductors have been the single biggest source of patent applications of graphene due to its high electrical conductivity, though so far it has been hard to make it perform as well as silicon, which has been the dominant material since the 1960s.
Graphene also holds promise for lithium-ion batteries, where the material can help improve its conductivity and battery life. This monthChina’s Huawei announced it had produced a graphene-assisted lithium-ion battery.
Its use in sport is a sign of graphene’s path to real-word applications. The industry was quick to use carbon fibre for bicycle frames, fishing rods, sailing masts and tennis rackets years before Airbus and Boeing took it up for their airliners.
“Elite sport acts as a clear proving ground and demonstrator for cutting-edge technologies that can then be applied to mass-market applications,” says Mr Ricketts of Versarien. “They are very open to new technology.”
Mr Cesareo of Directa Plus says the use of graphene in semiconductors is still more than 10 years away. He says tyres and the use of graphene to enhance heat-conductive properties of clothing offer more immediate promise. This month the company bought a 60 per cent stake in Osmotek, a Milan textile membranes company .
He credits the 2011 meeting with Mr Campagne of Vittoria as “perfect timing”, helping the company to focus on tyres.
“He’s a very creative person, innovators now are not just scientists or physicists — they are people with the possibility to look at future opportunities,” he says.
Aim-listed Directa Plus produces about 30 tonnes of graphene a year but aims to increase that to 80 tonnes and is testing graphene with more than 60 customers.
For Mr Campagne, the use of graphene has helped his marketing strategy, propelling Vittoria from a simple tyremaker to one that is able to talk to bigger companies. Last year he was invited to speak at Taiwanese iPhone maker Foxconn, at its factory in China. The Q&A was streamed to workers, he says, and the visit gave him a glimpse of the material’s future.
“The future is limitless, but we are not there yet,” he says. “The application is the key.”