M’sia towards an International Graphene Innovation Hub

I read with great interest that Lisbon is poised to become a tech hub in Europe.The Portuguese capital was reported to boast good infrastructure, dynamic tech community, affordable rents and English fluency among its workforce.South Korea could soon be tech startup hub in Asia. My recent visit to the Gyonggi Innovation Center in Pangyo Techno Valley, about a couple of hours from Seoul, had been nothing but impressive. As they place great emphasis on the “Creative Economy”, South Korea has established 17 such “Centres for Creative Economy and Innovation” across the country.

These centers have so far have nurtured more than 2,800 startups and SMEs, attracted over US$250 million of investments and generated more than 1,300 new jobs!

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has been tasked to spearhead Malaysia Commercialisation Year 2016.

Our agencies play a major role in laying the foundation for a complete ecosystem of commercialisation activities.

NanoMalaysia Berhad for example, is entrusted with commercialisation activities in nanotechnology.

When we scribble on a piece of paper with a pencil, many would not realise that the pencil core consists of a material that has caught the attention of the scientific community in October 2010.

The hype was due to the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

Graphene is a single layer of graphite that is also found in pencils. Dubbed as a “wonder material”, graphene is well known for its strength, said to be 200 times stronger than steel. It is also the thinnest, most stretchable crystal, and an excellent electrical conductor.

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8/11/2016: Launching an industrial ecosystem of Advanced Materials at Graphene Malaysia 2016

It is not always easy to explain what nanotechnology is. Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter at an atomic or extremely small level, therefore it is called “nano”-technology. Since the graphene material is only one-layer thick, the ability to manage it is hence known as “nanotechnology”. Bendable electronics and phones as thin as paper might be available one day thanks to some of graphene’s extraordinary properties. It is transparent and able to transmit almost 98 per cent of light. The possible downstream applications for graphene are numerous; NanoMalaysia has studied its opportunities in new and pre-existing markets, but with a focus on the latter for immediate realisation of its economic value.

Launched two years ago, the National Graphene Action Plan 2020 laid the foundation for Malaysia to catalyse several of its existing and emerging industries to increase global competitiveness through graphene innovations.

The plan’s five priority areas are namely, lithium-ion battery anodes and ultracapacitors, rubber additives, nanofluids (drilling fluids and lubricants), conductive inks, and plastic additives.

Assuming graphene can achieve a tipping point in the performance to cost ratio that would make the material an attractive replacement, it would be a competitive successor. Globally, much of the graphene-related commercial innovation to date has been upstream, with producers developing techniques to manufacture graphene at scale.

There has also been development in downstream sectors, as big players such as Samsung, Bayer, Material Science, BASF and Siemens explore product enhancement with graphene in lithium-ion battery anodes, flexible displays and specialty plastic and rubber composites.

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Datuk Chua Tee Yong, Deputy Minister of Trade, and I being introduced to graphene related products and services.

This action plan aim to spur Malaysia’s graphene-based economy in three years’ time. With an established graphene ecosystem, we would see additional high value applications of graphene.

Malaysia could be an International Graphene Innovation Hub by focusing its efforts on graphene-technology commercialisation instead of expansive research. This entails helping Malaysian companies to develop the initial intellectual property and produce higher quality products for both exports and internal consumption.

The action plan also indicates where in the value chain of the five priority areas graphene could be incorporated as well as identifies the emerging business opportunities within each application. Malaysia’s role in nanotechnology innovation would also be recognised in the upcoming highly anticipated Graphene Malaysia 2016, a global graphene conference that is first of its kind in the country.

We hope that the graphene-fever is spurring local companies to develop their own applications towards zero reliance on international intellectual properties.

Acknowledging that developed countries are already intensifying commercialisation of nanotechnologies, we need to be one of the early adopters of this technology too to ascend the value chain and eventually venture into the international market.

The government could play key facilitation roles to help companies, first by promoting and raising awareness, later in engaging relevant stakeholders and overseeing their joint path to achieve a successful ecosystem.

Yet I could not overemphasise that Malaysia is, and has to, shift towards innovative and high value products.

An innovative economy is the way forward, succeeding a commodity based economy. I therefore call on more businesses to explore the potential of nanotechnology, and parents to encourage their children to have an inquisitive mind in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning. Children and students alike, should be motivated to discover interesting subjects such as nanotechnology outside of the classroom.

Like Portugal and South Korea, Malaysia needs to leverage on its competitive advantage, in the case of graphene – the region’s fierce manufacturing sector – in nurturing itself as a graphene innovation hub.

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