THE smile begins to creep across Jon Mabbitt’s face.

It quickly turns into a chuckle and before long he can’t help but let out a proper laugh.

The old ones are the best and, he’s heard them all before.

Loading article content

A sheet of graphene, goes the anecdote, could hold the weight of an elephant balanced on a pencil.

Why and where you’d ever see a mammal performing such a trick on a platform the thickness of clingfilm, however, remains a mystery.

There are more.

The same sheet, say other apparent doyens of the technology industry, could support a ten-tonne truck over a hole in the ground.

Surely it would be better to use tarmacadam or find an alternative route to the one with a yawning chasm?

Of course, such events are fanciful.

But there is a serious side to this imagery.

Graphene has a real and genuine purpose.

Acclaimed for being ultra-lightweight and ultra-tough, it has been dubbed a wonder material for its ability to conduct electricity and heat, despite being as thin as a human hair.

It’s got people excited.

However, Mr Mabbitt isn’t one for getting caught up in the commotion.

As chief executive, he is overseeing the growth of Applied Graphene Materials (AGM), which works out of the Wilton Centre, near Redcar.

The company is a leading player in the UK’s graphene sector, a standing bolstered after raising £11m from a flotation on the Alternative Investment Market and a further £8.5m shares offer.

The Northern Echo visited its base last year when scores of samples were being processed and packaged up for delivery to interested parties.

In the months since, a lot has happened.

Just days ago, the business garnered its first production order and commercial application, revealing fishing operator, Century Composites, will use graphene in its Graphex range.

But the firm is also supporting Sherwin-Williams Protective and Marine Coatings, and corrosion management operation, TWI Limited.

It previously announced a deal with paint supplier, James Briggs Limited, which is expected to see it use graphene in anti-corrosion primers.

Bosses say AGM is now on an accelerated product development programme with James Briggs, which could see products launched in early 2017.

They also previously revealed it had signed an agreement with lubricant business, Puraglobe, to format versions of graphene for base oils, which are used in motor and hydraulic oils to ease equipment friction and wear.

Elsewhere, talks with Airbus, which is looking into using graphene in satellites, could translate to product development and adoption as early as next year, as well as further aerospace work.

So then, it’s been a year of progress for AGM, which spun out of Durham University, and now employs about 40 people.

However, Mr Mabbitt says the company is only scratching the surface, adding the toil of laying groundworks is now bearing fruit.

He said: “We have done a lot of the hard yards and put in the foundations for a sustainable and successful business going forward.

“It’s not our style to be shouting until we have something to shout about.

“We haven’t made a big song and dance about anything.”

Perhaps AGM hasn’t got the bunting out to laud its achievements, but it could be forgiven for doing so.

A key facet in those understated successes has been its decision on which area in the sector to target.

While some operations are focused on making sheets of graphene for use in touchscreen technology, AGM goes down another route.

It has developed a form of graphene that can be used as an additive in paints, coatings, plastics, lubricants and resins.

For plastics, it could deliver extra toughness, while with lubricants it has the potential to reduce friction and therefore improve fuel efficiency.

For paint makers, the theory goes that graphene could help coatings become better capable of protecting vessels’ hulls from decay.

Such ventures are getting it noticed.

“We have companies that we can use but there are a host of other we cannot talk about yet”, said Mr Mabbitt.

“Century are someone who are prepared to use the publicity but they are also feeling the benefits of adopting new technology into their product range.

“But there are others and Airbus are someone we are talking with.

“Weight is critical (in the aerospace sector) and Airbus are looking at graphene because of its potential and approached us about it being a potential solution to their challenges.”

Mr Mabbitt was speaking after AGM revealed its full-year results for the period to July 31.

The accounts showed total revenues increased from £100,000 to £300,000, with £7.7m cash at the bank.

However, they also revealed a higher loss before tax, of £4.5m.

But Oliver Lightowlers, AGM’s chief financial officer, said the deficit was an expected consequence of the business’ continued expansion.

He said: “The loss is in line with our expectations; we expected to make a loss.

“We are in the phase of commercially building the business.

“What we can expect is to grow revenues and that will help to offset the cost base.

“We think the business is going in the right direction and we have very supportive investors.

“They understand what it is that we are trying to do and the time we expect it to take.”

Mr Mabbitt echoed such positivity, saying its order book, which includes deals already announced and others shrouded behind confidentiality agreements, means it now has an extra edge.

He also said the business was benefiting from its North-East roots, hailing the area’s chemical and process industry heartland as a gateway to accomplished workers capable of driving the firm forward.

He added: “(Our successes) validate the choices we have made about the intellectual property around taking the raw material and formatting it.

“We are focusing on high-value applications and trying to get the model around that.

“We have started that but there is a long germination process for adaptation.

“Our technical people are working to help with problems and working out how to optimise the graphene.

“We are very fortunate; there is a rich heritage in the chemical and process industries.

“If we were down in Cornwall, for example, it would be quite difficult.

“We are in a great part of the country in that respect.

“There has been a lot written about graphene and a lot of hype.

“It is breaking new ground and we all want good news stories.

“When that happens, it gets built up and people expect an instantaneous response.

“Life isn’t like that and it will take time to get there.

“But we want to be part of something significant; we want to be a global market leader.”

Those elephants will have to wait.