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An industrial research and experimental development project in the strategic sectors of the Lombardy Region. Five crucial issues.

1 – Major nanotechnological innovation
More and more scientific studies point out to the future overwhelming impact of nanotechnologies on most industrial sectors. The revolutionary perspectives associated with nanotechnologies are a result of the fact that the behaviours and features of materials change radically on the nanometric scale, and therefore such technologies represent utterly new production methods to obtain materials, structures, and devices with largely improved or totally innovative properties and features.

However production processes often imply much higher investments and plant management costs compared to traditional materials. The Atanor Project is therefore designed to address the need to develop easily scalable production processes capable to produce nanoparticles at low industrial cost, so as to enter the market and directly compete.

The starting point of the industrial research and experimental development project is set by the studies carried out at the company Directa Plus, project leader of Atanor, on the nanoparticles known as GRAPHENE PLUS. Carbon particles (graphene) can be engineered into nanometric structures with different properties and, therefore, different industrial applications.

Graphene was discovered only recently (2004). It is a material made up of an atom-thick carbon sheet which earned its discoverers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010. In particular, the side dimension, pureness, and exfoliation degree of GRAPHENE PLUS nanoparticles make them fit for application in a variety of sectors.

The possible application sectors identified for graphene during lab tests range from electronics to batteries, from water treatment and purification to fabrics and new composite materials.

This last sector is where the innovation constituting the object of the Tender of the Lombardy Region, to which the Atanor Project was admitted, is being developed.

The goal of the project is, in fact, to analyze and develop an industrially sustainable technology and production process that starts from the definition and characterization of graphene nanoparticles and leads to the production of an additive capable to substitute, in full or in part, generic carbon black to obtain next-generation tires.

To this end, graphene should be industrially manufactured using a reliable, continuous (low product cost), cheap (low set-up cost), sustainable (high availability, low cost, and eco compatibility) process.
In fact, the desired production process will allow to produce graphene at competitive costs compared to the materials that are currently contained in tire mixes, and therefore to deploy this enabling technology also on a market that requires low costs and large volumes.

The goal is to obtain lighter tires with a low rolling resistance, in view of reducing consumptions and improving tire performance, also in terms of safety and environmental protection.
All the parties involved in the Atanor Project share the intention to improve the characteristics of the concerned elements in order to promote, on one hand, the development of production technologies based on the adoption of advanced materials and to obtain, on the other, more performing products (tires) leveraging on the superior mechanical and thermal/electric conduction properties of graphite compared to “untidy” carbon forms that make up ordinary carbon black.

2 – The goals of the R&D project: the achieved innovation

The project provides for development of an innovative nanocomposite polymer-matrix material, produced using a revolutionary low-cost and sustainable production process patented by Directa Plus. The developed material will be included in tire mixes as an additive in order to provide better mechanical features, superior physical properties and – hence – a significantly reduced environmental impact of the end product.

The graphene produced by Directa Plus will be added to polymer mixes to substitute traditional structural components (silicates and carbon black), either totally or partially.
Thanks to its surface area (2500mq/gr, therefore much broader compared to traditional structural components), graphene allows closer interaction with the polymers in the mix, which results from a significant enhancement of the atomic interaction network.
The new mixes will be checked by ISMAC-NRC, the main national institute for research on polymers, and will first be tested on bicycle tires, particularly the racing ones that need superior technical features compared, for example, to automotive tires.

Attempts will also be made to highlight the energy and environmental benefits of this innovation.

This project, then, includes two new entries:
• an innovative, low-cost process to produce graphene (Graphene Plus);
• the introduction of graphene (Graphene Plus) into tire mixes, substituting traditional compounds.

On the other hand, the market of graphene has quickly expanded from research labs to sale, driven by the demand of sectors that require advanced materials, such as aerospace, automotive, electronics, etc.

Most graphene manufacturers currently produce “graphene nanoplatelets” and graphene oxides. These are usually small-sized companies, i.e. start-ups that saw an explosion of demand for these materials from a variety of industries.

Today, in fact, lab production processes are mostly used, rather than industrial ones, to obtain carbon nanoparticles.

The goal of the partners to the Atanor Project is, instead, to enter the above-mentioned markets through the development of a production technology maximizing the use of graphene as an additive in tire mixes, based on its cost and performance.

The upcoming Graphene Plus process is characterized by the ability to engineer one’s products according to market demand: the process starts from an abundant and common raw material like graphite to obtain – at low cost and using equipment available on the market – carbon nanoparticles of the desired size, both in terms of planar dimensions (x/y) and in terms of number of carbon atom layers (z, i.e. “thickness”.).
The advantages of the process can be summarized as follows:
• a simple and scalable process capable to provide a consistent production of engineered nanoparticles;
• an abundant and low-cost raw material;
• a low-cost production plant.

3. Project goals: improving competitiveness

As already mentioned, nanomaterials offer an opportunity to produce materials with utterly new characteristics and performance.
This opportunity is based on the properties of nanomaterials (magnetic, optical, mechanical, electronic, etc.), which may change according to particle size, morphology, and composition.
Moreover, they offer the world chemical industry the opportunity to generate new products capable to improve the technological progress of the concerned parties and to create new business options. These are the results that the partnership for the Atanor Project intends to achieve through its development. After all, the companies involved in the project already represent the excellence of technology in the reference sectors in Lombardy.

Directa Plus is a young company involved in the development of innovative nanomaterials and of the relevant processes. The company did not sell its nanoparticles (which are produced on a lab scale) so far and therefore has no market shares. Its short-term goal is to produce different types of materials for the different markets, either autonomously or upon agreement with large industrial groups. Its goal with respect to the Atanor Project is to study and test the Graphene Plus particles contained in tire mixes in order to improve the properties and rolling resistance of tires. Competitive advantages will be clear for the second project partner Vittoria Spa, a world leader in bicycle tire production.

In addition to relying on significant improvements of its products, Vittoria Spa can expand its sector of interest to include tires for other uses, with significant competitive advantages. For better understanding of the importance of this application, it is important to consider that the introduction of graphene into tire mixes results into a sharp reduction of rolling resistance.

Rolling resistance is a force that appears as a loss of mechanical energy and is due to tire warping at the point of contact. While it depends on a variety of factors, the main cause for the rolling resistance of tires is the viscoelastic property of the used rubber compounds, which disperse energy as heat when “warping”.

Rolling resistance is responsible for the dispersion of 20% of the energy consumed by a car (i.e. one full tank out of five). The use of graphene in tires could therefore have a significant impact on sustainable mobility, both in terms of reduced fuel consumptions and in terms of subsequent reduction of the CO2 emissions causing the greenhouse effect.

From the technological viewpoint, the Atanor project provides for using Graphene Plus nanoparticles as an additive in tire mixes, substituting or integrating carbon black, which is made up of amorphous 100-500 nm coal particles.

Moreover, the main advantages of graphene derive from its combined properties: transparency and other optical properties, flexibility, mechanical resistance, chemical stability, electronic properties (mobility, ambipolar conduction).
The use of graphene in the different tire mixes is estimated to bring about the following effects:
• Tread: reduced rolling resistance, improved grip on wet roads
• Substrate: reduced rolling resistance
• Side: improved tear and stress resistance. Dispersion of electrostatic charges
• Belt: improved grip
• Inner liner: improved waterproofing and grip.

4 – Potential impact of the R&D Project on the proposing parties

Improvement of product and/or service quality
The Atanor Project is aimed at defining a new material – Graphene Plus – whose possible industrial applications are not fully exploited. Compared to traditional carbon nanoparticles, Graphene Plus has a high exfoliation degree resulting from its production process, which brings about a significant enhancement of its physico-chemical properties. In particular, an increase is observed in electronic properties (very high conductivity or adjustable semiconductivity), as well as in mechanical (more resistance and flexibility) and thermal ones (high conductivity).
Below is a list of some of the qualities of this material:
• extremely wide contact surface, approximately 2500 m2 per gram, promoting any chemical process;
• mechanical resistance, about 50 times greater than steel’s;
• thermal conductivity, more than twice as high as diamond’s;
• density, equal to half of aluminium’s;
• elasticity, equal to 6 times steel’s;
• electric conductivity, equal to 109 A/cm2

As to the industrial application of graphene in tire mixes, constituting the object of the Project’s experimental development activities, the goal is to bring about a significant increase of the quality of bicycle tires. These are also aimed at the sport racing sector, and therefore should provide the best possible performance. By adding Graphene Plus to tire mixes as a substitute for, or combined with carbon black, its unique physico-chemical properties can be highlighted.
According to estimates of the companies participating to the project, the following performance-related results can be achieved:
• improved safety;
• reduced abrasion;
• improved skid resistance on dry and wet roads;
• improved air permeability;
• improved perforation resistance;
• improved stability when bending;
• reduced weight.

The resulting product will be one of a kind. There is nothing like it on the international markets to date.

Another goal is to shorten product and/or service cycles (with reference to the procurement, production, and delivery lead time) and time-to-market.
Right now it is impossible to compare state-of-the-art product cycles with the cycle suggested by this project for the production of Graphene Plus, in that the production of carbon nanoparticles (nanotubes and graphene) is currently confined to labs, whose processes are not implemented at industrial level.
According to estimates of Directa Plus, the tire production time-to-market can be significantly reduced thanks to the physical properties of Graphene Plus, which make its transportation poorly cost-effective. Therefore Graphene Plus will be produced on site, both experimentally – as in this project – and industrially, and will be included in the production process at a later stage. This will result into a significant reduction of the procurement lead time and, therefore, of the time-to-market, with a positive competitive impact for the company (i.e. Vittoria Spa).

Reduction of product and/or service implementation costs

The main goal is to obtain a new material – Graphene Plus – while making the production process economically and industrially sustainable. Nanoparticles and nanomaterials obtained via traditional processes (e.g. Chemical Vapour Deposition, arc discharges, plasma or laser deposition) are too expensive for most industrial applications today, both due to high initial investment costs and to low volume production.

The process aimed at producing Graphene Plus is rather intended to reduce the material production costs so as to allow its actual industrial use. In terms of cost, the advantages related to Graphene Plus production include the opportunity to engineer the products according to the different industrial applications. Starting from an abundant raw material – graphite – the production process owned by Directa Plus will allow to obtain carbon nanoparticles of the desired size at low cost.

On the other hand, important benefits in terms of industrial cost reduction are observed with reference to tires. While on one hand a comparison of the cost of raw materials (carbon black and Graphene Plus) does not highlight a significant advantage, on the other this becomes clear when the amounts of material required for tire production are analyzed. Thanks to the physical properties of Graphene Plus and, particularly, to its extremely broad contact surface with which it creates atomic interactions, one part of the new material is estimated to substitute as many as 10 parts of carbon black. The advantages in terms of sharp reduction of raw material requirements obviously result into an equally positive economic impact on the corporate accounts of Vittoria Spa in terms of reduction of production costs and increase of the gross operating margin.

Penetration into new geographies, sectors, and/or distribution channels; increase of market shares and/or shift to higher value added market areas.

The nanoparticle production process as described above admits high-level engineering approaches to obtain different nanometric structures with different properties and, thus, different industrial applications.

According to the degree of exfoliation and pureness of the carbon nanoparticles used in the process, high-performance composite materials can be obtained, aimed at a variety of sectors. Based on the experimental development related to this research activity, one of the first areas of interest for Directa Plus will be the automotive sector (tires), with significant environmental impacts. Other sectors that could open up to the company include electronics and sensors, for which Directa Plus could develop high-exfoliation graphene nanoparticles. Graphene Plus nanoparticles could also be applied in the lithium-ion battery sector due to their high conductivity.

Countless uses for the new material exist anyway, which Directa Plus will continue to study.

According to estimates of Vittoria Spa, the practical and concrete implementation of the Atanor Project can have significant impacts on the tire market. With such a unique product in terms of quality and performance, Vittoria Spa will be able to promote the sale of its end products and work in progress, thus expanding its market shares and entering high quality and high margin segments.

Significant reduction of the environmental impact of products and processes

The first observed advantage is a reduced environmental impact of the tire production process.
The use of graphene in mixes will, in fact, allow to substitute some or all the current reinforcement materials by reducing:
• carbon black, whose production process is extremely energy consuming and polluting;
• silica, which implies management and disposal issues, due to severe criticalities related to the exposure of air-borne particles containing crystal silica (with a group carcinogenic effect).

One additional benefit is a reduction of the environmental impact of tires.

A scheme of the environmental impact (source: Pirelli SpA) demonstrates the benefits of introducing silica in tires, which allows an 11% reduction of the environmental impact compared to tires that only use carbon black as a reinforcing agent.

Thanks to its unique properties, graphene is estimated to reduce the environmental impact of tires to a significant extent, both at production and at usage level.

5 - The Atanor Project team

The role of Directa Plus Spa
Directa Plus is a technological company whose goal is to develop, sell, and use innovative nanomaterial generation processes. The technologies developed and patented by Directa Plus will enable the industrial production of graphene, the material whose discovery was at the basis of the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.
Directa Plus provides its technologies to the project partners in order to find an industrial application of graphene that may have significant impacts on technology for daily use, while minimizing the energy and environmental impact.

The role of Goldmann & Partners Srl
The role of Goldmann & Partners in the project starts from the assumption that a project designed on the basis of an innovative technology and a material with unique properties may not be separated from a cultural context optimizing its perception, particularly if related to generally recognized issues, like the environment and sustainability.

It is therefore obvious that the impact of the Atanor Project in terms of analysis and communication is a qualifying and necessary issue: a contribution of high social value to sustainable development.

The role of Vittoria Spa
A world leader in the production of tires and bicycle tires, Vittoria Spa Produces the best racing items for all skill levels and, particularly, bicycle tires and cotton tires. With an annual production of 7 million tires, 900thousand bicycle tires and cotton tires, all developed and manufactured in its plant, Vittoria Spa is one of the world’s greatest specialists and producers.
The group owns two brands – Vittoria for road tires and Geax for mountain bike tires – and distributes third-party products in some Countries.
Vittoria Spa acts as a link between the technology as such and its application-related issues, i.e. the actual creation of the end product – the ‘bicycle tire’ – and its sale and diffusion in the relevant sector.
The unique performance increase of the mixes based on Graphene Plus will characterize Vittoria Spa as a highly innovative brand and promote the global diffusion of its products across different market price levels, in order to substitute – in the long term – all or part of the existing mixes based on carbon black or silica, whose entire lifecycle makes them more polluting and expensive, with others containing Graphene Plus.

The role of ISMAC-NRC
ISMAC is currently recognized as a major scientific institution in the field of chemistry, physics, and macromolecular technology in Italy. ISMAC was and is involved in a variety of research projects (European projects, bilateral scientific cooperation agreements, networks of excellence) carried out in cooperation with various national and international academic or industrial think tanks. Several research contracts and assignments are in place between the Institute and a variety of industries. Therefore its activities receive both public and private funding.

Within the framework of the Atanor Project, ISMAC will work as the scientific partner in charge of material analysis and characterization activities – from preparation and mechanical, morphological, and physical characterization of the polymer containing graphene to result disclosure and dissemination.

In conclusion, based on the above, the Atanor Project is a major project of excellence in the strategic industrial sectors of Lombardy.

Activity co-funded with resources of the
Lombardy Region and the Ministry of Education,
University, and Research (DDUO No. 7128/2011)
Atanor Project ID 30132114


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