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Graphene 2013: Hype won’t help, say manufacturers

By Laura Syrett
Published: Thursday, 25 April 2013

Industry and public need to be realistic about wonder material’s possibilities

 
A triumph of design: ImagineNano Graphene 2013 was held in Bilbao this year, home of the Guggenheim museum
Unrealistic expectations about the potential powers of the super-carbon graphene could hinder the material’s development cycle, according to some developers.

Speaking at the ImagineNano Graphene 2013 conference in Bilbao, Tomas Palacios, associate professor of electrical engineering at MIT said that, although there were thousands of scientifically validated ideas for graphene applications, only a handful would make it to production.

Palacios showed delegates a graph plotting the development cycle of new scientific discoveries, showing that from an initial technology trigger the line soars rapidly to a peak of inflated expectations for the invention’s potential.

This is then followed by a deep trough of disillusionment when many of the anticipated applications fail to materialise, before slowly climbing again along a shallower "slope of enlightenment" and finally reaching a plateau of productivity.

"For graphene, we need to reduce the size of this peak and trough, and thereby shorten the time it takes to get to productivity," Palacios said, noting that it takes an average of 20 years for inventions to develop from the point of discovery to full productivity.

He added that it was a tough ask to expect graphene to compete with silicon in the near future: "The economics are against us, and the work of thousands of silicon engineers is against us," he said.

Hype is counterproductive

Rahul Fotedar, CEO of Norwegian start-up Graphene Batteries AS, agreed that the level of hype surrounding graphene made speaking about the reality of the material’s capacity difficult.

"Graphene has a lot of extraordinary properties, but many of these exist at the level where you won’t ever use them," Fotedar told IM.

"People come to me and say, ‘if I charge my phone with a graphene battery, will it take only a few seconds and last for a month?’ When you tell them ‘no, that’s not possible’, they lose interest," he said.

Fotedar also said that in Europe the excitement generated around graphene research tended to result in funding for universities, which was not the best way to yield applications.

"There is so little applied research going on in Europe – universities are swallowing up money but we are not seeing the products at the other end. In Asia, I think it is different; the connections between universities and industries are better," he said.

"At our company, we don’t make exaggerated promises. Instead, we aim to deliver what we believe we can do, and show that graphene can make a realistic impact on the technology sector," he added.

Graphene Batteries, which was founded in 2012, is looking to develop batteries which Fotedar said could vastly improve the energy storage capacity of consumer electronic devices, using natural graphite as a graphene-source material.

Fotedar believes that this is an economical alternative to using more expensive synthetic precursors, and said that the company was planning to collaborate with the Norwegian graphite junior Nordic Graphite for a possible supply deal.

He added that Graphene Batteries has already seen interest from battery, watch and mobile phone manufacturers for its products.

Unprecedented interest

Others were less scathing of the expectations for graphene.

Wolfgang Boch, head of the European flagship for future and emerging technologies (FET) programme said that the amount of media and political interest in graphene science was unprecedented, and this was helping to drive scientific excellence in the field.

"The FET initiative was not a politically driven decision, it was based on science," Boch said, adding that public support for graphene underpinned the FET’s goal of enabling collaborative research and development in the field.

Amaia Zurutuza, scientific director for the Spanish technology firm Graphenea, which aims to produce custom-made graphene products for industry, was also optimistic that the demands on graphene science would help to yield "game-changing" new products.

Zurutuza described graphene as a "disruptive material" – a material that provokes disruptions to power balances in numerous materials and markets – and said that graphene was proving that it deserves this status.

Graphenea, which numbers Nokia and Sigma-Aldrich among its customers, has a large portfolio of graphene products under development, according to Zurutuza.

Her presentation focused on solar cells, flexible batteries and optical transistors, applications on which the company has worked with customers such as the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) and the Technical University of Madrid to bring to an advanced point of development.

"We believe that the graphene market will grow," Zurutuza said, "but we know we have to address certain challenges such as the cost, scalability and reliability of graphene material, plus the need to match its properties with product applications."

"And we must remember that it will take time to get there," she added.