utilization of carbon materials

Advisor Spotlight: Frederick Baker

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Advisor: Frederick S. Baker

Industry: Carbon Materials

Areas of Expertise: Fred’s expertise is in the manufacture, characterization, and utilization of carbon materials, most notably activated (nanoporous) carbon and carbon fiber. Core skills cover all phases of product development and commercialization, including R&D, process design and scale-up, management of plant trials, plant specification and construction, M&A due diligence, and helping to prosecute intellectual property protection.

We recently had a chance to converse with carbon industry expert Fred Baker. Fred grew up in Kensington, London, but emigrated to the States over 40 years ago, settling in Charleston, SC. He attended university in London, majoring in organic chemistry for his baccalaureate and surface chemistry for his doctorate. From there, Fred increasingly focused his research interests on carbon materials as a whole, and particularly with respect to industrial production and applications. Below is a recap of our conversation with Fred.

InquireOf: If you had to describe the carbon industry to someone who knows little about it, what would you say?

Fred: It is a very important and diverse industry that touches our lives in many ways, albeit often unknowingly by society at large. From high tech use of graphitic forms of carbon in the anode of lithium-ion batteries to the mundane, but equally important, use of carbon black in tires, carbon materials are ubiquitous in the electronic devices we use and the vehicles we drive. We take for granted that the drinking water coming out of the faucet is safe to drink, but relatively few people are aware of the role that activated carbon plays in this respect.

The industrial applications of elemental carbon materials are incredibly broad, enabling the production of many products that are part of our everyday lives such as the use of graphite electrodes for steel and aluminum production. Carbon black is an essential component of the tires, hoses and belts in vehicles; it is used as a pigment in printing inks, coatings and plastics, and as a toner in photocopiers and laser printers. A higher technology application of carbon black is as a microwave (radar wave) absorber.

Uses of carbon fiber have increased exponentially over the past 50 years, the largest of which is in the aerospace industry. It is also increasingly used in vehicles to reduce weight and increase safety.

InquireOf: What are the most interesting trends you see in carbon today?

Fred: Carbon is perceived as being very simple in its elemental form, but in fact it’s one of the most intriguing of the elements, capable of existing in many complex forms, each exhibiting very different properties and uses. This is highlighted by the fact that the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their isolation of “graphene,” a known, but hitherto elusive, allotrope of carbon.

The 2010 prize is particularly noteworthy because it was awarded just six years after the game-changing research, and when many physicists still believed it was impossible for such a thin crystalline material to be stable (just one atomic layer thick). Interestingly, Geim and Novoselov simply used Scotch (adhesive) tape to peel graphene layers off a piece of graphite.

As a direct result of Geim and Novoselov’s scientific breakthrough, graphene research has rapidly accelerated and has already led to a commercial market for the material (with projections for the market size in 2020 averaging around $200 million). Research efforts are largely focused on exploiting the amazing strength and electrochemical properties of graphene, most notably in the aerospace, defense, energy, electronics, and biomedical and healthcare industries. Graphene will be used to obtain further substantial weight reductions in aircraft and to enhance the energy storage capacity and power delivery of rechargeable batteries, notably lithium ion, and of supercapacitors.

Of course, these and many other potential uses of graphene are dependent on resolving the major challenges associated with achieving cost‑effective production of the material on a commercially viable scale.

InquireOf: What shifts have you seen over the last five years in the carbon industry?

Fred: Over the past five years, the carbon industries have fared well, averaging a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of roughly 10% (collectively). The activated carbon industry has done particularly well, boosted by increased demand for products to meet increasingly stringent air pollution control regulations worldwide. At the same time, there has been substantial consolidation within the carbon industries, with mergers and acquisitions occurring in all segments of the industry, which, together with greater emphasis on cost control, has led to increased profitability. In this context, Asian companies have been particularly effective in acquiring US carbon companies.

With the increased emphasis on cost control and focus on quarterly performance and stock value, the traditional carbon industries (activated carbon, carbon black, furnace refractory and graphite electrode materials) have reduced investment in R&D, particularly in the US. This has led to a reduction of interest in carbon research in universities with respect to traditional carbon industries, notably at universities with leading carbon research groups (e.g., Penn State). However, younger researchers are being attracted to R&D of graphene, carbon nanotubes, and carbon fiber, which bodes well for the future of carbon industries as a whole.

InquireOf: What trends should people look to see in the next 18-24 months?

Fred: Within the next two years, we can expect to see trends that will impact the carbon industries both positively and possibly negatively. The automotive market is a case in point, as the major and global political force at work is to reduce fossil fuel use, largely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (CO2).

This is being tackled on several fronts, including replacement of gasoline‑powered vehicles with (affordable) electric vehicles and increasing fuel economy through improved engine efficiency and reduction of vehicle weight (each 10% reduction in vehicle weight increases fuel economy by about 6%).

To increase fuel economy, many vehicle manufacturers are focusing on weight reduction through the use of lighter structural materials such as carbon fiber, aluminum, and magnesium. The technologies for use of these materials are in place and have been applied to the production of racing cars and high-end sports cars, etc., for many years. However, the challenge is to do the same for vehicles that the general consumer can afford.

These and other changes regarding the production and use of vehicles are already well in hand and will result in winners and losers in several industries. For example, major car manufacturers have formed alliances with carbon fiber producers to facilitate larger scale use of carbon fiber in vehicles, which will benefit carbon fiber producers, but at the loss of business to manufacturers of glass fiber. Similarly, as electric vehicles replace fossil fuel vehicles, the need for activated carbon gasoline emission control systems on the vehicles will be gradually eliminated. On the other hand, electric vehicles contain rechargeable batteries (notably lithium ion) and supercapacitors, both of which will require large quantities of carbon materials.

Other major uses of activated carbon also will increase substantially within the next 2-5 years, most notably for treatment of drinking water. The message here is that for those carbon companies that have invested in R&D and are nimble enough to diversify their product lines, the net result of the changes in demand for carbon materials over the next two years, and beyond, will be beneficial to the bottom line.

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Why Connect with Fred? Fred has extensive, hands-on experience in the carbon industry. He has consulted for 45 companies in the last five years and utilizes his organic chemistry and surface chemistry knowledge to help develop specialty carbon materials. He most enjoys assisting startups get off the ground and helping entrepreneurs realize their dreams of becoming successful businesspeople. Fred also enjoys teaching carbon science and technology and is a guest lecturer and mentor at the graduate student level.

Fun facts: Outside of work, Fred enjoys ocean sailing and scuba diving. Fred’s personal claim to “fame” is the fact that he was Sir Winston Churchill’s newspaper delivery boy for three years, receiving a crisp one pound note as the traditional English “Christmas Box” from the great statesman himself each year!

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