Nanoplexus: the Manchester SME at the cutting edge of 2D materials
When Jae Jong Byun and a close group of fellow Manchester students brought their range of engineering and materials science talents together, the result was a unique platform technology that won the 2019 Eli Harari Award for graphene innovation. Now, as Nanoplexus becomes a Tier 2 partner of the GEIC, chief executive Jae tells the story behind the company and the potential for a new material called MXene to transform the landscape of advanced manufacturing.
Tell me about your background and how you got into advanced materials…
I was born in Japan and moved to the UK when I was about five because of my dad’s work – working in telecoms and setting up private networks. My father is Japanese and my mother is Korean and they met while she was doing a PhD in Japan, so I have a strong academic background. My grandfather is a judge in America, all my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side are either lecturers or professors in Japan…
You’ve got a lot to live up to, then!
Sure, especially as the eldest son, with a Korean background, you have that standard that you have to meet all the time. So it was a big turning point when I had to tell everyone when I was 18 that I wasn’t going to university.
Oh. We didn’t expect that twist. What happened there?
I think I was a bit burnt out from going through the academic system, exam after exam, year after year. I’d had four or five years of constant exams and I thought university would be the same.
I was always a more hands-on kind of guy, like my father, who went into an apprentice scheme for training engineers. That really appealed to me and over the last 15-20 years, that kind of apprenticeship opportunity has really improved in the UK.
So where did you go?
I did some work experience at [Japanese electronics firm] NEC in London and went straight into work after finishing my A-levels, doing the same sort of thing my dad did, as a telecoms engineer, and I got to travel and work, mostly in Europe, and became a project manager three or four years after that.
But then I made a promise to my mum. After getting some hands-on experience and really getting to know what working was like, I said ‘I’ll come back and do my degree’.
Apart from pleasing your mum, of which we very much approve, why the change of heart about uni?
In the end, having the qualification gives me the foundation to build something in the future, and it gives you credibility. My ultimate goal was to found a company myself and learning the ropes from 18 really gave me the skillset that I required to be able to do that: how to manage teams, how to manage companies. But I’ve always had a strong science and engineering background and if you want to get into this field, credibility is everything. So I believed not having that degree would set me back.
What did you end up studying?
I wanted to do something wasn’t purely academic. A couple of my friends went to UMIST [before the merger into UoM] and I knew the strong ties that the uni had with industry.
I did materials science and engineering, which was the perfect balance. You can really apply physics, chemistry and biology or you can specialise in something more practical as well, so that really appealed to me.
So what happened next?
I was on the third year of an MEng, doing a team project, and my supervisor Dr Suelen Barg said: “Do you want to spend another year doing your Master’s, when actually you could do a PhD straight away?” That was in the summer of 2019 and she said she had an offer from Rolls-Royce for someone to do some ceramic printing work, and did I want to do it now? So I dropped out of my MEng course and over the space of about 10 days switched to doing a PhD. It was such an honour to be working on a PhD and working with Rolls-Royce, that’s what I really wanted to do.
What did you mum say when you told her you’d dropped out?
Initially she was concerned as it wasn’t the norm to skip your Master’s before doing a PhD. But after the initial shock, she was very excited for me.
And the birth of Nanoplexus – how did that come about?
I had met my two other co-founders during my undergraduate studies, Thomas and Francis [Moissinac]. We had always planned to go for the Eli and Britt Harari Award. We met Wenji Yang, our other co-founder during a third-year MEng project. She was a PhD student in Suelen’s group and our advisor. During our project we decided that we had the opportunity to go for the Eli and Britt Harari Award.
So Thomas and Francis and I were all flatmates through our undergraduate studies so we knew each other really well and Francis was also on my course. So, first I’d already found people who I worked well with, that was critical. We find ways to find solutions and that’s really important.
What was the basis of your idea?
We understood that there could be a huge breadth of possibilities with graphene and we were working on the concept of an aerogel. We knew the potential because it has an incredibly high surface area and is a really stable material itself as a structure and thought: “Can we do something with this?”
So we wanted to apply it to something really appealing, something environmentally related towards net-zero targets, especially as Manchester is being more aggressive than the rest of the country in setting those targets towards 2038. So we looked at the hydrogen economy.
There was a big project in the North-West called the HyNet Project, which involved the use of wind power to convert water into hydrogen, in order to pump a hydrogen/natural gas mixture into existing gas supplies in a small area and test it to try to reduce domestic CO2 emissions. We wanted to use graphene to help with greener hydrogen production.
So how does the aerogel work to contribute to that?
If you imagine the aerogel as a foam, we can decorate the internal surfaces of the foam with a catalytic material that can convert from water into hydrogen. Because we have a really controlled ecosystem that we can build within the aerogel, it has a very high surface area – we’re talking about 500m2 per gram. In this case the material would be platinum, which is a really expensive material, so we wanted to see how little platinum we could use and still maintain output of hydrogen. We were able to do that with this concept and that’s what won us the Eli Harari award in July 2019.
So is this what Nanoplexus is doing now?
Not exactly… we’re building a foundation to be able to do this concept in a wider sense. Our technology is not just about hydrogen; it’s a platform. So by changing the active ingredient within the aerogel, we can apply it to a different industry.
For example, if I change the platinum to a copper-based material, we can change it to a carbon sequestration technology, so I can take carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into material like ethanol. That’s the exciting aspect of our core technology, that it can be applied across a range of industries, which was always the promise of graphene and 2D materials.
The next step at Nanoplexus felt like we were deviating slightly, but we wanted to try to secure that supply chain of the materials that we required. And the challenge with graphene is that if you go to one company, you get a completely different type of graphene from another company. That’s been one of the biggest criticisms of graphene for people working with advanced materials.
We’ve seen that standards can take a long time to produce [see our blog from NPL on this]…
They do and we can’t control that, so we needed to get to a point that – at least within our own internal parameters – we could control [the quality of graphene]. And this aerogel concept can be applied to any number of 2D materials, so we’ve built it already out of five different materials.
For graphene oxide the supply chain is quite strong now and lots of companies have done good work in scaling up that production. But the other material that we were exploring – MXene – was just not there in terms of scale of production, maybe a maximum of 10g per week – not anywhere near the amount that we require.
Explain MXene for us. What exactly is it?
MXene falls within the family of 2D materials. It was first reported by a group led by Prof Yury Gogotsi and Prof Michel Barsoum at Drexel University [in Philadelphia, US].
MXenes are 2D transition metal carbides and nitrides. These are materials that have a layered structure with (n + 1) layers of M (the early transition metal) connected by n layers of X (carbon or nitrogen) and have a general formula of Mn+1Xn (n = 1–3). MXenes are made by atomic layers and the thickness of a single stack of MXenes is about 1 nanometre.
Different combinations of M and X can generate different compositions of MXenes, and there are reports that more than 20 different compositions of MXenes have been synthesised, and over 70 different compositions of MXenes are theoretically predicted.
Like other 2D nanostructured materials, such as graphene, metal oxides and boron nitride (BN), MXenes have a similar structure and electrical properties that could be an alternative to other 2D materials in many cases and show promising properties for applications in gas sensing, energy storage devices, wearable electronics and other high-performance energy applications.
What’s the solution to the problem of scale?
Our team comes from a very wide range of backgrounds. Thomas has a background in aerospace and systems design; Wenji has a background in materials manufacturing production and electrochemistry, supercapacitors, batteries etc; while mine and Francis’ expertise is in fundamental materials science. I work more towards scaling production and composites and Francis is more towards the theory side. Combining all those capabilities we were able to build a scaling process that actually works, that really can scale.
So in the absence of anybody else making enough of this stuff, you decided to make it yourselves?
We looked at the market and said to ourselves, “there’s no-one out there”. Or the prices they were quoting us were ridiculous. If you have to pay $1,800 per gram of this material, the company would just not be sustainable at that price point. And also, when you set that kind of high price, industry gets scared and will never pay for it. So, the adoption of that material, even if it’s amazing, will never happen because no-one will pay for it. And they couldn’t show us that they could scale in the future, so we just took it upon ourselves.
And you came into the GEIC under the Bridging the Gap scheme…
We started focusing on this at the beginning of last year (2020) and started talking to James Baker and Paul Wiper in the GEIC about going under the ERDF [European Regional Development Fund] scheme Bridging the Gap, which was perfect for us.
Initially it was supposed to be for our hydrogen fuel cell concept, but Covid-19 got in the way of that, and we were brainstorming what else we could do in that time and what was realistically feasible about the impact the we could have as a result of the project, started working on the scale-up of MXene and refocused our efforts towards that.
So what’s different about Nanoplexus’ process compared to others’?
We wanted to minimise risk of failure and adapt systems that were already pre-existing. One of the complicated things about MXene is that there are several steps you have to go through to be able to manufacture it.
What we’ve managed to overcome well is the integration of different systems into one that is capable of getting to the point where we can scale production.
And we’ve thought outside the box. There are so many different processing methods that people have come up with [for producing 2D materials], it’s just that nobody thought of using this process for this application.
Have you needed to add to your team in this effort to scale up?
We’ve added two part-time staff outside the core team and we’re looking to expand that to a couple more by the end of this year. And maybe double that in size by the end of next year, if all goes well.
Does that mean you’ll outgrow the GEIC and be looking for new premises?
We’ve quickly understood that the GEIC is something we’ll always have in mind because of the range of facilities that it offers. It’s just not practical for a new company to be buying an electron microscope or a Raman spectroscopy unit – that sort of capital-heavy equipment on your premises. This is what the GEIC model does really well for SMEs.
Clearly, if you get to the point where you’re producing a lot of material, you’re not going to be able to do that in the GEIC. We’d have to take over the whole site!
But what we can do is still maintain that membership with the GEIC and use the facilities and the expertise that they have. That’s always going to be there for us.
So what are your commercial plans now and in the future?
Very much like graphene in general, the scope for industry partners is very broad. We’ve spoken to people in aerospace, thinking about applications within the atmosphere and in outer space. We’ve spoken to the automotive industry, the electronics industry. The end-user applications are endless.
Also like graphene’s road map, we see very strong demand in R&D and academic institutions, but what we have noticed in the past few months is an increase in industry uptake. Because they’ve had that experience of working with graphene and other materials, they already know about this material called MXene. For them it was just whether they could get the quantities they need.
So graphene has almost paved the way already for MXene to be adopted by industry?
There’s definitely a large group in industry that hasn’t adopted graphene and 2D materials yet – they’re not interested. They just can’t see how it would help their core business. But the partners who have already incorporated graphene have also explored other 2D materials and they’re definitely more receptive.
One of the challenges, though, is a common misconception to ask “is it better than graphene”? Or is it worse? And that’s the wrong way to look at it. There’s no such thing as a perfect material. And that was a problem graphene had initially. Graphene was painted as this perfect material. But the practicality of graphene is that it’s only this many times stronger than steel or this much more conductive than copper if you have it in a perfect monolayer.
So industry has to look at it on a practical level. I like to look at 2D materials as if we’re building a group of materials that can be used as supplementary materials. For example, in the 1950s and 60s everything was made out of metals and then we had a really big injections of polymers and carbon fibre and that brought a new class of materials that we really don’t even think of any more.
Most aeroplanes are built out of carbon fibre-reinforced polymer composites. And that’s what we’re doing now with 2D materials. We’re building a group of materials for complementary use.
If you look at it like that, you can see how graphene might be better in, say, composites, whereas MXene might be better in electronic or thermal applications. Or you might mix them together for an application where they work together.
So what’s the ultimate vision for Nanoplexus in 10, 20, 30 years?
From a Nanoplexus point of view, the future looks like us being the leading provider of MXene in the world. We want to establish the business and develop a platform of technologies – a number of projects that we’re running already.
From more of a humanitarian aspect, it’s all about sustainability. We have real problems in the world with overconsumption and what we need to do is learn how to integrate systems that can mitigate climate change faster. That where a company like ours can benefit because we’re in the ecosystem – in the GEIC, at the university – to be able to do exactly that: integrate fast.
I hope these materials are going to be able to help create the kind of circular economy that includes hydrogen, includes electric vehicles and ultimately makes the world a more sustainable place.