Will a small Galilee factory deliver Nvidias superconductor?

Simtal owner Tal Kaufman  credit: Oren Sonego
Simtal owner Tal Kaufman credit: Oren Sonego

Tal Kaufman's electronic components coating company Simtal may be on the verge of a breakthrough in the production of graphene.

Even at a distance, the Simtal Nano-Coatings factory stands out from its surroundings in the dusty Tsiporit industrial park in the Upper Galilee. The facade is mauve, and the color also dominates inside, where dozens of women work delicately alongside orderly rows of electronic boards, peering at electronic components through microscopes and deftly coating them with mauve-colored polymer.

The workers on the production floor - women only - represent all strata of the population residing near the factory: religious girls from Nof HaGil with head-coverings; Bedouins from Zarzir dressed in burqas; war refugees from Ukraine; Jews from Migdal Ha'emek, and Muslims from nearby Mashhad and Bu'eine Nujeidat.

Mauve/pink is the color of the kitchenette, too, with rose-colored microwaves and toasters. It is kosher, keeping meat and dairy separate, and if girls from the ultra-Orthodox community take up Simtal’s offer to work there, it may one day be separated by gender. For the time being, of the 100 workers, only four are men, of which three are electricians and one is CEO Eran Bar-Rabi, life partner of Simtal founder, president, and sole owner Tal Kaufman.

"I couldn’t find any female electricians - women who work with electricity professionally -- that's why I also employ some men here," Kaufman, tells "Globes". "In our field, women are better workers than men." she states. "It’s like a manicure; have a man work for nine hours doing delicate work through a microscope and he won't last. When men encounter a problem, they use strength, and if that doesn’t solve it, they use even more strength. Women know how to overcome problems elegantly and gently."

From the outside, Simtal is just another factory, one of many of its kind in Israel. It deals in protective coatings for electronic components - a standard process in electronic device production, designed to protect these all-important components from water, acid, and corrosion. This is a traditional industry in which processes are 50 years old and more - a far cry from the glamorous world of startups and unicorns in Israel’s central region.

Away from the bustle of production is a hidden side room, off-limits to the hardworking staff. Over the past year, Kaufman, along with CEO Bar Rabi, have devoted their time to building a huge machine, about three and a half meters high and eight meters long. It looks like a small submarine connected to the kind of cooling unit usually found at server farms. In fact, these are giant interconnected ovens that, through a two-hour process, produce thin sheets of graphene, one of the most intriguing materials around, frequently described as the superconductor that could disrupt countless industries.

The staff in this room are completely different: high-tech workers in t-shirts and jeans work on constructing and calibrating the machine. They are from Nvidia, the semiconductor giant whose major development center in Israel is located not far away, a 15-minute drive from Yokneam.

What is the most talked about chip company in the world, which recently crossed the trillion-dollar mark, looking for in a low-tech factory near Nazareth? Graphene is said to have supermaterial properties: flexibility that allows it to be folded many times over, tremendous strength -- a hundred times that of steel -- better electrical conductivity than any other conductive material, and heat dissipation that makes it one of the most important materials for the future of the computing industry. Nvidia believes that casing its graphics processor in graphene will facilitate highly efficient heat dispersal, so that cooling costs at the server farms operating the world’s cloud and artificial intelligence services could be reduced dramatically.

Kaufman runs the only factory in Israel that coats printed circuits with a chemical called parylene - a type of nylon polymer that evaporates under high heat and wraps onto the electronic boards as a thin, impermeable layer. She realized that graphene production processes are similar to coating processes. She was, in any case, looking to expand into new businesses along the electronics value chain, and two years ago stepped out of her comfort zone and into the Israel Innovation Authority's (IAA) Graphene Consortium. This is a syndicate comprising commercial companies and academic institutions set up as a government initiative aimed at more effective coordination to solve big, demanding problems, instead of supporting cybersecurity or fintech companies that could easily raise funds from venture capital funds. Graphene Consortium members include Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, and commercial companies such as Elisra and Nvidia.

Kaufman joined expecting to try out new possibilities for her business, but to her surprise emerged as Nvidia's great white hope: the conglomerate recognized that her production processes could lead to a significant acceleration in the production of graphene, and mobilized to build, together with Simtal, the giant machine currently housed at the Tsiporit plant.

She has good reason to be optimistic. Nvidia's project managers in Yokneam are holding their breath: if the production process proves to be cheap and effective enough, this will translate directly into billions of dollars in power consumption savings for it and its customers. Essentially, the Nof HaGalil factory is currently the thing that would bring Nvidia closest to the holy grail of the chip industry: the superconductor.

A doctorate in loans and funding

These days, Kaufman can sit back and look at the production floor with satisfaction: the factory is working at full capacity with increasing demand from defense, medical equipment, and high-tech companies. The available machines and workers are finding it difficult to keep up with the rising demand, and the company is operating at a healthy profit. Kaufman currently lives in Shimshit, a community settlement not far from the factory, with five children, hers and those of her partner, Simtal CEO Eran Bar-Rabi. Previously a local authority administrator, who reached the rank of director of the Nof HaGalil Municipality, Bar-Rabi opened a new chapter in his life after meeting Kaufman at a kitesurfing course. Today, as CEO, he manages the factory and knows every detail of the coating processes. Half of the machines on the production floor are named for female members of the couple’s families; the other half are named for their children.

But life was not always so sunny. In fact, most of her nearly 20-year career with the coating plant were a struggle for survival of the business she had set up with her own two hands. Even the start was rough; Kaufman finished her engineering studies in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, and found herself in a job market during a raging economic crisis.

"I was so desperate for a job, that I picked up the phone to every workplace I could think of," she says. "When that didn't happen, I distributed newspapers for "Maariv". She found temporary work: a simple technical position at a bus terminal company in Bnei Brak, but never abandoned her dream of working in a technology-intensive industry.

Then came the offer to work at a tiny workshop in the Bedouin town of Zarzir in the Galilee. Kaufman, originally from Kiryat Ata near Haifa, was deterred neither by the remote location nor the hands-on role, and seized the opportunity with enthusiasm. She had never dreamed of working with heavy machinery, but working with 1970s-era parylene coating equipment became an anchor of stability for her. When the workshop ran into difficulties, Kaufman decided to take initiative and purchase some of the equipment. She took out loans, ordered second-hand equipment from abroad, hired three workers from Migdal Ha'Emek, all with the hope of bringing the gospel of parylene to Israel, at a time when very few believed in coating with this expensive method.

Kaufman saved shekel after shekel, took out loans without personal or family equity, and began to purchase more and more machines from other factories. "I came to a point where I had NIS 1.3 million in loans, and only NIS 60,000 in revenue," she says. "I prayed that everything would work properly; every machine malfunction or new supplementary equipment cost tens of thousands of shekels. A chiller unit would cost $20,000. I would get up every morning, wash my face, and go into battle, go to the bank, and just roll over loans from quarter to quarter. Basically, I did a doctorate in persuading bank managers to give me loans -- and it worked." Until 2011, the workshop -- which had meanwhile become a factory - subsisted from month to month on loans.

In the end, it was not heavy industry that rescued Simtal, but rather the Internet. Kaufman, one of the few young female plant managers of the early Internet era, understood the power of Google. She invested in building and promoting a website, and the orders began to flow in. "Factory owners in Israel would read articles about the virtues of parylene, but when they looked for it in Israel, they got nowhere - often, they just gave up in advance. I couldn't go to trade fairs because I had no money, so the Internet opened up possibilities for me that weren't there before."

Then came the first phone call from Flextronics, the US-based printed circuit manufacturing giant that also owns a factory in Israel. Global headquarters had issued a directive to switch coating in Israel to parylene, as with Flextronics’ other plants, and Kaufman's was the only local factory that met the conditions. "The Americans wanted to visit the factory, but it wasn’t really a place where I could host them," she says. "What am I going to tell them - go to Zarzir, and go down to the factory under the falafel stand and the hairdresser? " Within days, the Israeli management brought tables and wall coverings to improve appearances slightly. Flextronics’ US representatives visited the factory, signed a contract, and the project continues to run to this day, supplying HP.

One morning, walking near the Zarzir factory. Kaufman saw two Bedouin women washing a floor and smiling at her. "I asked them if they would like to join me at the factory as coating machines operators," she says. "I knew from the start that girls would be suitable for this job, but they just smiled, and didn't answer. Later, the landlord, an IDF veteran who had invested his pension in our building, came to see me. Even before, he had helped me by letting me defer rent payments for a month or two when I couldn't pay. But on that visit, he explained to me that the two women were his daughters-in-law, and said they would be happy to work at the factory, but on condition that only women would work here."

The global graphene challenge

Kaufman moves frenetically from room to room. It is hard for her to sit and talk for more than ten minutes at a time; first the phone rings, then she’s deep in reading cell phone texts; and at times she seems to be bored with being interviewed. Her perpetual motion, non-conformism, and perseverance, go back to childhood. " My mother took me to a swimming lesson when I was eight years old," she says. "And from then on, I didn’t want to get out of the pool. When they offered me classes twice a week, I exclaimed, ‘Why not every day?’".

Her totality of purpose led to her becoming a member of the city swimming team. Today, she is the sponsor of the Maccabi Kiryat Bialik swimming team, which has produced Olympic competitors such as Anastasia Gorbenko and Alon Mendel, and she has ambitions to build an Olympic pool for the northern region. Moreover, when she was 16, Kaufman read about a sport that was new at the time, the triathlon. "This was when very few people in Israel knew about this sport. There were no suitable bicycles, there were no triathlon teams. I would go to Akko to train. Our coach took us running in the sea -- that's how I got started. There’s an inseparable connection between competitive individual sports and entrepreneurship: striving for victory, perseverance, investment, not giving up even when you fail."

The idea of producing graphene came from a conversation with a customer who mentioned the material (whose discovery had earned its discoverers a Nobel Prize) and the race to produce it, mainly for their own use, between computing giants like Samsung and LG.

Most graphene today is produced through graphite mining and the result is a low-quality material. Only by "growing graphene" -- creating an atomic scale graphene layer using special furnaces -- will produce a material with all the desired super-properties, but this process is expensive and takes longer than the industry can afford. Kaufman, who was looking to expand her factory's business in the production value chain, wholeheartedly took on the challenge of growing graphene, and her client's recommendation to contact the Israel Innovation Authority’s Graphene Consortium.

Two researchers from the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of a technique for producing the super material just 13 years ago, but the production process is so expensive and difficult that only 7,000 tons of the material are produced annually, worldwide. For the sake of comparison, global production of silicon - the base material for semiconductors - stands at 8.8 million tons per year. Graphene production -- the industry term is "growing graphene" ---is an expensive and lengthy process, making its production so unprofitable that manufacturers are still looking for a practical application that will make its production economical. Growing graphene involves a complex chemical process that produces the exact conditions from which a thin layer of carbon atoms linked together in the form of hexagons is spread out to form a single honeycomb-like lattice just nanometers thick.

The person who recognized the enormous potential of the Simtal plant to create a breakthrough in the production of this superconductor was Dr. Doron Naveh, head of the nanoelectronics program at the Faculty of Engineering at Bar-Ilan University, the most advanced laboratory in Israel in the field, who is among the world’s most prominent graphene specialists. Simtal’s unique coating process, using a technology called chemical vapor deposition or CVD which takes place in a vacuum, fits graphene growing like a glove; in both cases it involves evaporating several chemical gases containing carbon over a metal sheet.

In the original coating process, parylene is vaporized and deposited onto the substrate. Naveh believed that it would be possible to apply a similar process to a copper sheet, thus producing a thin graphene layer. Naveh built a scaled-down version of the machine in his laboratory, and after the feasibility of the process was demonstrated, it was hypothesized that a larger model would be able to produce a graphene sheet in one-tenth of the time of the world's largest machines, and with quality and at a price at least an order of magnitude better.

99% of the graphene produced today comes from graphite mined from the ground. According to Naveh, "This material is used to create batteries, to reinforce buildings and roads, but it has no use in the electronics industry because it is a low-quality material. The chip industry uses clean, perfect silicon wafers, and it requires nanometer-thin materials. Therefore, another process is needed to produce nanometer sheets only a single atom thick".

Korean electronics giants Samsung and LG are already today producing graphene sheets, but for their own consumption, and without publishing much data from which one could draw conclusions about their quantity or quality. Naveh is counting on the specialized CVD process at the Simtal factory, which he believes may lead to a revolution in graphene production: a process that will make it possible to produce a graphene sheet at a far lower price point and of equally high quality. He states that the expected production rate at Simtal is so high, it may reach 2.5 square meters of graphene sheets per hour, more than 100 times the current standard industry rate of only 0.03 square meters per hour.

After proving feasibility at his laboratory with a small-scale machine, Naveh is sure this is now also possible with the giant machine built by Simtal. The process is similar to that on its other production lines: hydrocarbon gas is injected into a furnace at high heat until the hydrogen evaporates, leaving a layer of interconnected hexagonal carbon atoms arranged together in a single honeycomb-like lattice. For this purpose, the factory applied processes used in aircraft design and conveyor belt production.

"The big challenge was to make sure that injecting gas at a temperature of a thousand degrees would not create turbulence," he says. The revolutionary production line inside the machine facilitates faster and cheaper production, but requires maintaining a constant and controlled temperature at all stages, while keeping pressure differences constant inside the chamber -- one of the secrets that allow Naveh and the Graphene Consortium to produce graphene at the highest rate in the world.

It’s no coincidence that the activity of the Graphene Consortium being led -- together with Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev -- by graphics processors giant Nvidia.

Dr. Elad Mentovich, principal engineer in Nvidia’s Advanced Development Group and Data Center Engineering, which deals with future projects, was among the Graphene Consortium founders, due to Nvidia’s understanding that some technological breakthroughs in nanomaterials, by their very nature, require efforts that cannot be made solely in-house. "In nanotechnology, there is a huge gap between potential in the lab and industrial applications. The Consortium therefore focuses not on the theoretical aspects, but on the challenge of producing graphene on a larger scale, at a higher rate, and at a lower price, and on its applications in mass production of chips," he says. Today, he serves as the Graphene Consortium's chairman.

Nvidia doesn’t just send workers almost every day to Kaufman's factory. If some equipment needs financing here and there, it does that too. The company behind the artificial intelligence revolution sees several advantages to graphene: the first is a very high frequency signal conversion that will improve the communication capabilities of electronic components in server farms. The frequency in CVD graphene can reach up to 120 gigabits per communication channel, perhaps up to 200 gigabits in the distant future. Copper, which is currently used by the semiconductor industry, is limited to 60 gigabits, and limits data center communication speeds. Copper electrons scatter in all directions, collide, bounce, and do not behave as smoothly and rapidly as graphene.

The second advantage is heat conduction, which is also where Prof. Naveh sees the future for semiconductors. "Obviously their bottleneck today is thermal," he says. "The more transistors you cram into a given area, the more heat you have to take out, and the industry needs good conductors for that." Since graphene is also a great electrical conductor, in the long run it could even replace silicon conductors, but Naveh does not go that far: he sees graphene being integrated into the casing, the surface that connects the chip to the outside world. Later he sees graphene being incorporated in networks of sensors and electrical neurons.

"The next Tower Semiconductor"

Before launching the machine, the Consortium intends to establish another company that will commercialize the joint solution based on joint patents for graphene production that were registered long ago. The company, already named Graphene Technology Systems, will be managed by Aner Shoham. It has already opened a funding round, with Nvidia not only as a technological partner but, through one of its investment units, perhaps a financial partner as well, or it may recruit other investors.

"There were many events that happened at the same time, which allowed us to get to where we are today," says Kaufman. "If Dr. Elad Mentovich (from Nvidia - A.G.) wasn’t Israeli, but was a scientist living in Finland, for example, perhaps this factory would have been established in Finland. If Prof. Naveh's laboratory at Bar Ilan didn’t exist here, if we hadn’t been looking to break into manufacturing other products, and if we hadn’t moved to a new plant where it was possible to set up an infrastructure and bring in new machines -- none of this would have happened. All of this led to the right moment when everything works out.

"If it works, and the new machine produces graphene as we expect it to, then, in the most optimistic scenario, this could be the next Tower Semiconductor," says Kaufman. "A large company located in the north of the country, with a large production facility, traded on Nasdaq."

And if it doesn't work, what will you do then?

"We’ll look for the next thing. We’ll roll up our sleeves and be ready for the next thing."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 26, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

 
Simtal owner Tal Kaufman  credit: Oren Sonego
Simtal owner Tal Kaufman credit: Oren Sonego
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