Graphene, when combined with other materials, could revolutionise technologies from batteries to heat exchangers and air filters. Anaphite co-founder and CEO Sam Burrow developed a process for making these composites while studying for his undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol. After meeting co-founder Alex Hewitt, the pair dropped out of their respective courses to set up the company, and moved into Unit DX in mid-2018. Anna Fleming joined Sam to discuss the many applications of their technology.
Can you give me some background on Anaphite? What’s your key technology?
We are exploiting a process we’ve developed that enables the formation of composites of graphene with a variety of other materials, which produces new materials that combine the properties of both. Right now we’re producing those materials, testing their properties, and exploring the potential market for each one.
Why use graphene? What makes its composites so useful?
Graphene can impart its properties into a material in a composite, and it has a lot of useful properties – like being extraordinarily strong; it’s the strongest material that’s ever been tested, and highly conductive. Because it’s extremely thin – essentially two-dimensional – it has an enormous surface area. This means that you only need a tiny amount incorporated into your chosen material to have a significant effect. That’s good because it means you retain the core properties of your chosen material, but add high strength or conductivity.
So what are you combining with graphene to produce these composites?
We started with a class of ceramics, composed of metal and oxygen – the metal oxides. They’re used very widely in industry, so they were a good target, the rationale being that our composites might be taken up by manufacturers using metal oxides already. It’s much easier to sell someone an improved version of a product they already use than ask them to change their manufacturing process entirely.
We started with titanium dioxide. It is used as a photocatalyst, meaning it uses light to initiate certain chemical reactions. These reactions break down certain materials into carbon dioxide and water, meaning it’s often used to break down pollutants in air or water. This reaction is normally quite inefficient, and what we’ve found is that our graphene composite makes a drastic improvement to the catalyst efficiency – it’s around three times better!
Are there other applications for your composites?
In short, yes. Metal oxides can be used to store lithium ions in batteries. The electrode that stores these ions expands when it charges, and problems with controlling this expansion can lead to battery failure and explosion. Ideally, you want to use a material that won’t expand. It just so happens that one of those materials is lithium titanate, which is a lithiated version of titanium dioxide. We immediately saw potential there, because that’s the same material we had been working on. In theory, graphene/lithium titanate composites would have higher conductivity, allowing shorter charging times. We have just applied for an Innovate UK grant to allow us to test this.
We’re not just working on titanium dioxide; other metal oxides, like tin oxide, will expand a huge amount – around 250% as it charges. Obviously, if your battery expands by that much, then you’ve got a serious problem. But using graphene, we can make a large structure which has a small amount of tin oxide particles inside. The idea is that when the tin oxide charges, it will expand and fill the voids in the structure, meaning you can store lots of energy using a light structure. So the battery you’re putting in an electric car could weigh three tonnes rather than five. It’s about reducing the amount of battery you need to travel a certain distance. And that’s a big focus of the grant, because it’s an issue that’s hampering electric car design at the moment.
What’s the history of Anaphite?
I’ve always been interested in graphene; I experimented with it back in my school days, and a graphene-based project I entered into the Google Science Fair was placed in the top 15 in the world. When I came to university at Bristol I got talking to some professors, and managed to find some lab space to continue my work.
So, alongside my degree, I developed the process. I got in touch with the Business Basecamp at the student welcome fair, and they pointed me towards the New Enterprise Competition that the university runs to help people set up start-ups. Through that, I got support and space to work on the project over the summer of my first year. That’s where I met Alex, my co-founder and COO. He has a background in physics and was working on his own project, but he realised that this was more exciting than what he was doing at the time – his words – so we joined forces. He helped a lot with the business side of things; because he’d already started his own business before, he was able to help me commercialise it. We’re almost polar opposite characters, but we work well as a team.
I bumped into Harry Destecroix (Unit DX/Ziylo co-founder) at a talk he gave, and he invited us down to have a chat, so we visited Unit DX while it was still a shell. We were very excited by this place, and what it meant for us and for others. Unit DX was the perfect place for us to commercialise this, and the timing couldn’t have been better. After we filed our first patent, we raised our first funding round in just two weeks, which was amazing. Then we moved in. Since then we’ve found all sorts of people in the wider scientific community that are interested in working with us.
We’ve also taken on more people, like Elena, who is a research scientist and a recent chemistry graduate. Last summer we had around seven interns, and they did a fantastic job helping us scope out the market. We want to carry on doing that; we’re taking on individual people for their own projects. Of course, it helps us out, but we’re also trying to support the rest of the community out by offering experience to young people who could be in our position in a few years.