O tempora! Oh graphite!!

Thursday, 16 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It was Cicero from times gone by who is credited with this sentence, from his oration against Catiline. Cicero’s frustration was about nothing being done against Catiline despite all the evidence. He was of course seeking Catiline’s execution. The issue in my view is despite all the evidence and the importance of value addition, no serious road map for value addition is attempted. Hence my humble interpretation “Oh what times! See what is happening to our natural resources!” We also seek an execution of a different sort. Graphite is one such material which certainly appears to be going through a period of intense interest. The exports in itself has shown a sudden surge and some more money being received. Though this may be appealing to those who measure developments only against what we have been doing all along, an extra gain is not actually a sign of progress. There are parties who have suddenly become interested in seeking graphite resources and then planning even stockpiling elsewhere for future gain. The quest is as a result of developments such as Li-hydride batteries and of course the wonder material of the century so far – graphene. Graphene is an engineer’s delight with unbelievable properties from the strongest, flexible, thermally conductive, electrically conductive, transparent, denseness, etc. The day the riddle of mass production of graphene is solved, it’s going to be much more exciting times ahead. Already flexible and super thin mobile phones are being demonstrated and this is as a result of incorporating graphene.         Ceylon and its capabilities J.W. Bennett writing his book ‘Ceylon and its capabilities’ and his preface to his book should be an eye-opener to all of us today. This is a long extract but is important to note the message he transmitted in 1843: “Ceylon, though comparatively but little known, is pre-eminent in natural resources, and abounds in all the necessaries and most of the luxuries that minister to the gratification of human nature. Its vast importance in every sense, political, fiscal, agricultural, and commercial, has hitherto been too much overlooked by capitalists; a neglect, which, I would fain hope, has arisen from the want of detailed information, or the pressure of other objects, apparently more interesting, only because better understood.” He goes on to further write in English reminisces of his day: “The object of my humble description is , to submit to public view the great capabilities of this magnificent island; - its fertile soil, indigenous vegetable productions, including dyes, medicinal plants, gums, and naturalised exotics; its minerals; wild and domestic animals, varieties of timber for construction and ornament, fisheries, immense uncultivated tracts of arable and other lands; employed and unemployed population; and its exports, already large, and easily to be increased. To these, I have added my humble suggestions for establishing farms for the improvement of the native breed of cattle and other domestic animals, and for supplying the Royal Navy and Commercial Marine with stock of every description; factories for curing the varieties of useful fishes which abound on the coasts, easily obtainable, but now altogether neglected – all offering ample employment and prompt returns for British capital and enterprise; and I have not omitted to point out how a gratuitous supply of Teak timber may be provided for the future exigencies of the Royal Navy.”           Development approach It is instructive to note how an English author evaluated the island. He had clearly spelt out the potential of what Ceylon had to offer and the potential for the colonial master. This reminds one of the view expressed by Mahatma Gandhi that the lifestyle and the opulence of United Kingdom was based on resources of many countries and seeking the same for an independent India would mean requiring a few planets. The methodology of conquering regions for securing resources for one’s own upliftment is today no longer possible. However, the needs are still present with only mechanisms becoming more complex and perhaps devious too. Considering the sovereignty that exists, it is still up to a nation to decide how one deal with its natural resources and ultimately one can only blame oneself for falling prey to short term offers for short term gain? Having farsighted policies and ensuring that resources are sustainably utilised for national upliftment will demonstrate a country that is positive in its approach to development. It is instructive how the new technology of fracking has positioned the United States ahead of Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production and the stand that the US takes in exploiting its resources. What everyone has witnessed as potential has escaped us still. It is becoming clear that with every passing year we appear to entangle ourselves evermore in complex scenarios simply due to not understanding the value of increasing the economic pie by working imaginatively on what we have. While the colonial masters were happy with taking the resources at this stage, neither individual nor an institution should ever contemplate sending a limited natural resource without any value addition. It is an economic crime, simply stated! We should understand that value addition is beyond simple cleaning and upgrading.           Graphite Graphite is an interesting example. We have a unique resource with a high purity. COSTI has just concluded a successful roundtable discussion on value addition to graphite. Participants came from universities, industries, policymaking bodies and research institutes. The presentations yielded that we are still basically sending the graphite in its raw form. There are examples of excellent primary processing of cleaning and flotation, etc. What are missing are the secondary processing steps and the graphite based products. The issues of exploration licensing, barriers in importing chemicals, lack of understanding still of the extent of resources, research not connecting to businesses and vice versa, research not being known to the industry were all discussed. It was also pointed out we have other options than pursuing only graphene. There was no argument however over the uniqueness of ‘Ceylon graphite’. When Konstantin Novoselov, the Russian scientist who found his way into history books and the Nobel Physics prize in 2010 for the discovery of graphene while working at University of Manchester, UK, had stated the value of crazy projects, he was talking about having the right environment for research to make things happen. Research on graphene is a worldwide obsession as its potential is so high. It is instructive to read the story of graphene and it is a lesson to anyone who believes on multiple committee meetings and meticulous planning as the way to conduct research. The point to note is we have the rigidity of administration but not the flexibility to be creative. Realising value from natural resources will need the latter. Europe has awakened to the fact that though they were in the original discovery, the patent rush with graphene had come from elsewhere, i.e. China and United States. The EU has thus embarked on a Euro 1 billion Euro research program on graphene. Their intent is interesting. The project means collaboration between industry, universities and states. In fact as per data, 61 academic institutes and 14 industrial partners in 17 countries have joined hands together. This is collaboration of the highest order. The lesson to be taken is why the players in our country cannot join hands to share risks and move on to value addition. It was quite clear during the discussion on one’s inability or the unwillingness to handle a process development and expansion by oneself. However joining hands between State and private sector players could change the scenario. For centuries we have done nothing but what we are doing today. Some incremental improvements may have happened but that is nothing much to crow about. There are opportunities for SMEs to be created in graphite processing. Of course some issues of industrialists should be understood and resolved. Price of energy and the impact of bulk imports of similar goods may need State interventions without contravening international trade agreements. However, natural resource exploration and licensing may need some serious study as the area appears to be found wanting. We should take a fresh look at our natural resources. Bennett as a loyal civil servant to the Crown was explicit in his writing. It is not only about graphite and we will keep revisiting this theme by addressing other resources too. It is time that we start working together as that is success! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI   (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on [email protected].]

Recent columns