The future of graphene is far from flat: 2018 state of commercialisation

Fourteen years after its discovery graphene seems less likely to cause a revolution in the world of material science and innovative business practices related to it. Instead, it looks poised for a slow but steady commercial evolution, whose ultimate goal is to make the best of its strength, conductivity and flexibility. In the words of one of graphene’s co-discoverers Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester, it’s easier to improve products that already exist using graphene, rather than come up with totally new applications.  Prof. Novoselov and his colleague Professor Sir Andre Geim won the Nobel Prize in physics for isolating and characterising graphene in 2004. Their breakthrough opened the door to the exploration of thousands other one-atom thin materials, whose future applications hold a great scientific promise.

At present, however, the world of science and business remains focused on graphene and its unique electronic, thermal and optical properties. The disruptive potential of the “wonder material” is already under exploration in many sectors such as medical device industry, aviation, energy, water filters and membranes, paints and coatings, and sport.   

“We still don’t know the definitive number of graphene’s applications. My predictions are that we are another five or ten year away from seeing it fully deployed into high-impact technologies like biomedical and sensor industry”, Dr Simon Thomas, CEO of the Cambridge-based company Paragraf explained to us. In the words of his colleague Prof. Andrea Ferrari, Director at Cambridge Graphene Centre, in the long run graphene seems a perfect match for medical device manufacturing, quantum technology and spintronics.

Another graphene-hungry industry may turn out to be chipset manufacturing. According to some experts, silicon has slowed down its progress in terms of speed, latency and light detection, as the law based on Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observations made in 1965 breaks down. Moore had spotted that the number of transistors that can fit into one-inch silicon chip doubled annually while the expenses halved. In 2018, doubling the number of transistors requires 18 months, and could get even longer. A sluggish silicon sector may have a potentially negative impact on the whole computer industry, unless a better-suited replacement comes along soon.  

Graphene conducts electricity better than silicon.  In 2017 a team of researchers from Northwest University, The University of Texas, University of Illinois and University of Central Florida used that fact to develop a graphene-based logic circuit that improved the clock speed of the processor, using only a hundredth of the power required by a silicon chip. This led experts to suggest that graphene computers could work 1000x faster, using less power. But “There is a certain degree of inertia and bias in the technology sector when it comes to introducing new materials to the chipset industry. These are the roadblocks graphene needs to overcome before we can talk about it replacing silicon. It is yet to be seen what corporate businesses in Silicon Valley have to say about the new material and its environmental impact”, Paragraf’s Simon Thomas told us.

“Graphene cannot fully replace silicon because it is not a semiconductor, but it can demonstrate its impressive potential by integrating into chipsets”, Professor Ferrari pointed out. “An integrated approach of graphene and silicon-based photonics can meet and surpass the requirements of the increasing data rates in future telecom systems”, he added. According to the scientist, there is already a consensus on that topic between major market players who are aware that graphene has a part to play in the advent of IoT, Industry 4.0 and 5G. “Modular prototypes already exist; it will take 3 to 5 years for the technology to be commercially introduced”, according to Ferrari. One of the first prototypes was developed in 2011 by researchers from Samsung and the University of California. It came in a form of a flash memory device that integrates silicon and graphene.  Scientists reported that the prototype uses less energy and offers enhanced data storage capabilities. Three years later scientists at IBM Research built a silicon chip whose transistor channels were made of graphene. The chip was promoted as “the world most advanced graphene-based chip” in terms of speed.

Meanwhile some low-impact graphene applications such as paint and cement composites (composites are materials made of two or more constituent materials with different properties) are closer to commercialisation. According to scientists at the University of Manchester, 2D material- based composites could soon be used to fight rust in ships and cars, or reduce lightning-strike damage on aircraft. Researchers are also working on graphene membranes to provide pure drinkable water, by separating solvent from the liquid. If introduced to traditional lithium-ion batteries, graphene can deliver flexibility, longer life and reduced charging time, and may therefore have potential in grid applications and for storing wind or solar power.

The big debate about graphene’s commercial applications

In 2018 experts have expressed concern that the lack of standards regarding graphene’s properties hurdles its commercialisation. In some cases price tags of the 2D material available in the market vary as widely as the characteristics of the product itself.

“There are plenty of quality control issues with graphene”, says Dr Derek Lowe, an organic chemist, in his blogpost for Scientificmag.org. He points out that some commercially available materials marketed as graphene are graphene oxide or its reduced form.  

A study titled The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production, published in September 2018 by Alan Kauling and a team of researchers including Konstantin Novoselo, adopts a similar stance. The researchers argue that all graphene currently available in the market demonstrates large variations in properties:

“The quality of the material produced in the world at present is rather poor, not optimal for most applications, and most companies are producing graphite microplatelets”

the report reveals. According to the scientists, standardisation must be introduced in order for the graphene industry to make progress.

In a separate article called The war on fake graphene, Peter Bøggild, professor at the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology and in the Centre for Nanostructured Graphene, Technical University of Denmark, describes the above-mentioned study as an important read for everyone involved with graphene in both scientific and commercial capacities. However, he also notes that the authors could have identified the product selection criteria they used in order to avoid accusations of potential bias. According to the Danish professor, quality graphene makers could have been involuntarily omitted in the study. “As the researchers mention, different applications generally make use of different characteristics of graphene — which makes it difficult to come up with a universal metric of quality”, he wrote. Similar opinion was expressed by Prof. Ferrari. “There are no significant roadblocks thwarting graphene’s commercial adoption”, he noted, explaining that the one problem 2D material is yet to overcome is the need for its properties to meet the specific demand of each application:

“Graphene’s production approach should be application-based. People need to understand that not all products can benefit from its atom-thin structure, and that two- or three-layered formations are more advantageous in some cases. In that sense the concept of fake graphene is fake news.”

Graphene initiatives around the world

Scientific and commercial interest in graphene around the world continues to gather momentum and major projects are taking place in Europe, USA and China.

“Europe has established itself as the leading continent in the graphene race”, Prof. Ferrari pointed out.  The Graphene Flagship initiative set up in 2013 by the European Commission involves more than 150 academic and business organisations from 23 countries. It is considered the best-funded project worldwide with its EUR 1 billion budget earmarked for researching graphene and facilitating its commercial adoption.

However, the UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU in 2019 threatens to impact negatively not just the project itself but also graphene studies in the country where the “wonder material” was first discovered. According to the BBC, Nobel laureate Prof Novoselov has said he is “very concerned” about what happens to research funding after Brexit. Professor Ferrari told Innovation Observatory:

“In short term Brexit will have a negative effect on graphene research. Of course, we will have to see the type of Brexit we will have. But it must be clear that at present the UK is receiving significant amount of funding from the EU. We have also been promised by the UK government that it will help science after the withdrawal from the union.”

Meanwhile in the USA, the National Graphene Association (NGA) has defined similar aims to Europe in terms of graphene’s commercial adoption. Its main objective is to join together the efforts of scientists, suppliers, developers and investors to progress the future of the 2D material.  In 2017 NGA established the American Graphene Institute – a non-profit educational and advocacy organisation – and the Graphene Venture Fund, built to create business opportunities for graphene’s applications.

Some reports suggest that China is about to emerge as a leader in the global graphene race. According to an article in china.org.cn quoting government studies, at present over 3000 companies “are exploring uses for graphene” and “half of the world’s graphene-related patents have been filed in China”.  Production capacity is expanding as foreign companies follow demand and establish operations in China. In early 2018 the UK-based company Versarien announced intentions to build a graphene manufacturing plant in China.

Scientists and producers around the world must decide whether graphene’s properties should be generally standardised, or whether materials should be manufactured to suit specific applications. Either way, that step looks vital for helping business unfold the 2D material’s potential.  

Examples of companies offering commercial products containing graphene in some form

  • Dassi Bikes, UK - graphene-enhanced aero road bikes

  • FiiO, China - in-ear monitor earphones (FiiO F3), that make use of a graphene-enhanced diaphragm driver

  • Zolo, Liberty, Canada - wireless earphones with "graphene-enhanced" sound

  • Colmar and  Directa Plus, Italy -  graphene-enhanced sportswear

  • Team Group, Taiwan - slim M.2 PCIe SSD built specifically for gaming laptop/high-performance tablet PCs; uses graphene copper foil cooling module

  • Nanomedical Diagnostics, USA - graphene-enhanced NHS Agile biosensor chip

  • Catlike, Spain - graphene-enhanced cycling helmets

  • McLaren, Richard Mille, UK - RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1 watch using graphene, titanium and carbon fibre composite

  • First Graphene, Australia - PureGRAPH graphene sheets and flakes used in coatings, battery electrodes, composites, concrete, and inks

  • Vollebak, UK - graphene-enhanced jacket

  • HEAD, Netherlands - graphene-enhanced tennis rackets and skis

  • Huawei, China - Mate 20X smartphone uses "graphene film cooling technology”

  • Inov-8, UK - fitness shoes incorporating graphene

  • Tetreles Technology, USA - graphene-doped water filters

  • Nanocase - smartphone cases with a graphene panel to help dissipate heat

  • Vittoria, Italy - graphene bikes and tyres

  • GNext, Italy - conductive ink, graphene film, graphene paint-coating, composites

  • Ubrix Resources, USA - graphene-enhanced concrete.

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