Many reasons to look at the multi-talented Versarien
“…this is one of just a handful of graphene pioneers doing the hard work to turn commercial promise into reality, well positioned to take advantage of when this most tantalising of prospects finally comes good…”
Versarien Plc (AIM:VRS), the UK-based advanced engineering materials group, continues its search to unlock the commercial promise of graphene, doubling-down on developing possibilities in the construction and textile sectors.
Discovered in 2004 by researchers at Manchester University, the superconductive, one atom-thick carbon material that is 200 times the strength of steel almost seemed too good to be true, opening possibilities for the transformation of everything from the tiniest electronic components to city skylines. It soon became apparent that potential applications included flexible digital screens, ultra-efficient batteries, artificial bodily organs, radical extrusion, moulding, and 3D printing processes, stronger, lighter aircraft, ultra durable clothing, new printing inks, and diamond-hard cladding that inspired visions of a new generation of super high skyscrapers and space elevators reaching into the outer atmosphere.
But nearly 20 years on graphene is still waiting for its ‘killer app’: a commercial use-case that will move it from the realm of science fiction to an integral element of a 21st century infrastructure. VRS is one of a still select set of ventures seeking to bring real world applications to market. The UK-based company has a suite of revenue generating ‘mature businesses’, including Total Carbide, which manufactures ‘sintered tungsten carbide’ – hard metallic coatings – suitable for arduous environments, such as the oil and gas platforms and the flow control mechanisms used in the defence and aerospace sectors; AAC Cyroma, designing vacuum-formed and injection-moulded graphene enhanced plastic products for the automotive, construction, utilities and retail industry sectors; Gnanomat, focused on energy storage devices with high power density, fast recharging and very long lifetimes for use in electrical vehicles and portable electronics products; and 2-DTech, producing a range of graphene enhanced polymers with commercial possibilities, including Polygrene, Nanene and Hexotene.
These continue to innovate: Total Carbide, for example, is diversifying into space technology, designing components to improve the thrust of satellite-launching rockets. But VRS’s primary focus is on the development of groundbreaking graphene applications within the construction and textile sectors, vast markets in which the material has increasingly compelling – and viable – possibilities.
Stronger, greener concrete
Fossil fuels get most of the attention, but the construction industry’s carbon footprint is bigger still, accounting for some 40pc of the world’s energy and process-related emissions – the production of concrete alone contributes 8pc. But graphene can make a big difference. The addition of less than 0.1pc to mixtures can strengthen concrete by 30pc, providing an anchor around which the cement can consolidate. Graphene’s anti-corrosive capabilities also protect rebar – the steel rods used to reinforce concrete – from moisture. Adding just 0.005pc to marine cement enhances its resistance to chlorine by 40pc.
Quite simply, stronger concrete means less of it is needed, opening the way for a significant greening of the industry. The commercial possibilities are enormous. The global ready-mix concrete market is forecast to reach $1,375bn by 2028, and the global market for graphene included in cement could be approximately £900m per annum by 2030. The immediate roadblock is simply that of producing enough graphene to meet the industry’s potential demand. According to one recent study the world’s annual production capacity for graphene was less than 3,000 tonnes in the first quarter of 2019. But by the first quarter of this year that figure had more than quadrupled, to 12,700 tonnes. Until recently most graphene was made from methane, but now it is being made from an ever wider range of materials, including waste and discarded mixed plastics.
VRS is seeking early mover advantage, working to obtain the necessary British Standard (BS) accreditations to allow full-scale commercialisation of Cementene, a graphene-enhanced cement the company has applied for demonstrative purposes in a range of scenarios. VRS used Cementene for its new innovation centre at Longhope, Gloucestershire, and earlier this year showcased its use in the Lunar Pod, a 3D printed graphene enhanced concrete unit with potential applications ranging from garden offices to humanitarian shelters. The versatile Pod offers the prospect of greater durability and lower costs than traditional concrete structures: 20pc cost savings on ground bearing slab, 30pc less material, and the halving of carbon emissions.
Textiles and footwear
VRS is also seeking to take advantage of graphene’s increasing presence within the textiles, footwear and leisure-wear sector, targeting a market estimated to be worth approximately £400m by 2030. Earlier this month the company announced that sportswear brand Umbro will integrate VRS’s Graphene-Wear technology into its Elite Pro-Training Kit range, initially for the 2023 spring/summer collection. VRS’s Graphene-Wear formula is designed to enhance thermal transmittance, reducing moisture and speeding drying without compromising air or water vapour permeability.
The announcement follows several other contracts with international texture brands. In February VRS said its graphene enhanced elastomers would be used in US brand Flux Footwear’s new ‘AdaptMid’ model, designed to provide greater durability through improved abrasion resistance whilst preserving the shoe’s traction. The new shoe will be available in Flux’s Autumn/Winter 2022 range, and can pre-ordered in the UK directly through VRS’s products website. VRS’s Graphene-Wear technology is also being applied to new garments being developed by retailer Superdry, with a view to establishing a trademark licence royalty agreement, and by South American partner GoToGym. The company is working with Inspecs Group to develop graphene enhanced eyewear products, due to be launched next year, that improve frame strength and durability, and has an agreement with Gerdau to supply graphene enhanced masks in Brazil.
Automotive and aerospace
VRS is exploring graphene’s transformative potential in other sectors. Graphene-enhanced carbon fibre reinforced polymers have a range of applications in the automotive industry, opening the possibilities for significant vehicle weight reduction that would improve ranges for electric vehicles and reduce fuel consumption for internal combustion engines. VRS has developed lightweight car parts for Lotus, and is working with Enso Tyres to explore the fuel efficiency gains opened by more durable, lighter tyres.
Graphene also has possible applications in the aerospace industry, including light-weighting, fire retardancy, ice protection systems, lightning strike protection and electrification. VRS is currently working with Airbus to develop graphene heater mats for integration into aero foil structures: icing wind tunnel testing is underway. And the company has received its first order for sample material from NASA, where graphene will be investigated for possible space-craft coating applications.
Ties with the UK defence sector
VRS participates in a range of government research initiatives. The company has just concluded a contract with the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory that explored the benefits that graphene-loaded materials may bring to defence applications. One promising project stream investigated the possibilities afforded by graphene-enhanced carbon fibre polymer to enhance military bridging. VRS is seeking further engagements from the UK defence sector. The company also received a £5m loan from the Government’s Innovate UK initiative to develop its G SCALE (Graphene-Seat, Concrete, Arch, Leisure, Elastomer) programme consisting of a series of collaborative projects including the design of nano-platelets and graphene inks for consumer textile applications in the apparel and footwear sectors, a venture with China Railway to develop graphene-based transport infrastructure, and the production of new polymers for down-hole oil and gas drilling components. VRS has also joined the Digital Roads of the Future Partnership, opening access to a £14.5m road network programme.
VRS continues to tread water financially as the company works to generate significant returns from its graphene initiatives. Its most recent results, published earlier this month, stated a loss before tax for continuing operations of £5.14m (2021: £8.08m) and net assets of £14.4m (2021: £16.5m). Cash was £3.1m (2021: £2.4m). But revenue from graphene is rising, up by 170pc to £1.89m (2021: £0.7m). Revenue from continuing businesses increased by 34pc to £7.63m (2021: £5.69m).
VRS’s share price has reflected the cycle of promise and anti-climax that has characterised the graphene market: the promise is real, but so is the challenge of commercialisation. VRS’s share price touched heights of 187p four years ago, since when it has fallen back to habitual levels of around 20p to 40p. At the time of writing the price was 20p, and the company’s market cap £43m. VRS is flying a number of kites that may come good sooner rather than later, notably in its target cement and textile sectors, with the promise of re-energising the company’s near-term value. But VRS is probably best viewed as a long term investment, and, at this price, perhaps a sound one: this is one of just a handful of graphene pioneers doing the hard work to turn commercial promise into reality, well positioned to take advantage of when this most tantalising of prospects finally comes good.