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IDTechEx: Who killed graphene’s killer application?

By Laura Syrett
Published: Thursday, 30 April 2015

As graphene investors become impatient with the material’s inability to make the jump from laboratory to market, developers are dropping the idea of a “killer application” as the route to commercial penetration to target smaller gains on multiple fronts instead.

Graphene developers are abandoning the concept of a single breakthrough technology and are choosing to focus instead on more modest, but crucially more achievable, commercial opportunities for the nanocarbon material.

Speaking at the IDTechEx Graphene and 2D Materials conference in Berlin, Germany, this week, experts in the graphene field were largely dismissive of the notion that the industry’s future could rest on a single "killer" application.

"We don’t talk about killer applications," Ronan McHale, research leader for advanced materials at UK-based Thomas Swan told IM. Products discussed in the early days following graphene’s discovery included invisible aircraft, foldable computer screens and super batteries. However, "it’s much more realistic to get it into an ink," said McHale.

Canada-based graphene developer, Grafoid Inc., has also decided to take a more measured approach to getting its graphene into commercial products. "We’re looking at buying smaller battery companies and building up from there," Chester Burtt, Grafoid’s director of communications, told IM. "It’s about taking it steady and making sure you pick the best quality partners."

This shift towards incremental, rather than monumental, gains for graphene technology comes as investors begin to express their increasing fatigue with the sector. The business of making graphene for graphene’s sake has become overcrowded without yielding the market penetration needed to take it from a laboratory curiosity to a mass-market material.

Many graphene companies have also yet to become profitable, despite spending a number of years and many millions of dollars working exclusively on the science.

According to Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, head of consulting at IDTechEx, the current size of the graphene market is not large enough to accommodate all the capacity being developed by businesses around the world.

"Most of the market today is still around R&D materials, which only require very small volumes," Ghaffarzadeh said.

He added that the rate of company formation in the graphene industry, which began to snowball around 2006, peaked around 2011 and is now slowing down as the low-hanging application fruit disappears and disillusion begins to set in.

This deflation of expectation is all part of the cycle, however. Ghaffarzadeh pointed to the example of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), which he said had followed a similar trajectory to graphene in terms of anticipation versus actual market development. He said that CNTs were now in the "post-hype peak" stage of being gradually but successfully adopted into commercial products, such as batteries.

A culture of unrealistic projections, a desire for overnight success and overly bold statements about capacity have contributed to the waning of interest in graphene Ghaffarzadeh said. He believes that progress is now likely to be measured on a more minute scale, with the view that commercial victory for graphene may emerge as one of a series of minor triumphs.

"The story will be about small gains on multiple fronts. One of these might win," he said.

Ghaffarzadeh highlighted 3D printing, supercapacitors and batteries as being among the frontrunners for successful graphene adoption, but warned that the material faces pressure to outperform incumbent materials, such as indium-tin oxide (ITO) in the conductive films market, which is being targeted by manufacturers of chemical vapour deposition (CVD) graphene.

Competition

Another sticking point has been the debate over whether graphene’s main role will be to improve existing technologies or facilitate new ones.

Guenther Ruhl, lead principal for new materials at Infineon Technologies, said that graphene will not replace silicon in standard devices.

"The market will be driven by novel device concepts – it will be an enabler of new devices," he said. Such new applications include drug delivery systems in the field of nanomedicines and transparent electrodes for battery technologies.

Others, such as Spanish nanotechnology group Graphenea, believe that the greatest opportunities lie in existing markets, such as the inclusion of graphene in polymers. Sai Shivareddy, a researcher at Tata Steel Europe and fellow at the University of Cambridge, similarly argued that graphene-based coatings for steel could add value to what is already a multi-billion tonne industrial commodity.

The line between new and old is hazy, however. "When people say they are enhancing an existing material, what they are really doing is creating a new family of materials in a recognised area," one industry participant, who preferred not to be named, told IM.

"It is this confusion of the message, about what is new and what isn’t, that helps to put people off."

Raw materials

The acceptance that different types of graphene can be tailor made to suit various applications appears to have sidelined discussions about whether natural graphite or synthetic carbon precursors are superior raw materials for making graphene.

Graphenea, which produces its graphene using the popular CVD method of depositing gaseous reactants onto a substrate, has reduced its selling prices for graphene for the last two consecutive years by improving efficiency and taking advantage of higher demand to scale up production.

However, proponents of natural graphite-based graphene still point to the apparent cost advantage of using a mineral as a raw material.

Australia-listed Talga Resources Ltd, which began making graphene "by accident" from ore at its Vittangi graphite mining project in northern Sweden a little over a year ago, said that cost was not an issue for its mineral-based material.

Mark Thompson, Talga’s CEO, said that his company’s graphene is essentially a by-product of its graphite processing and already beats competitor materials such as zinc on price.

The company recently announced plans to build a graphene demonstration plant in central Germany that will use Vittangi ore – a strategy that Thompson refers to as "moving the mountain to the microscope" – and is in talks with a number of triallists and potential customers in sectors including metals and plastics for the adoption of its graphene.

The future

Looking ahead for graphene, stakeholders agree that a lot needs to change both within and outside the industry in order for graphene to make the progress needed to keep, or restore, the faith in what has been lauded as the "wonder material" of our time.

Yet while investor patience with graphene certainly seems to be waning, there remains no shortage of big name brands, including Tata Steel, BASF, Nokia IBM and Phillips, still outwardly committed to the science, while companies like Lego and packaging producers for Coca Cola also rumoured to be circling.

According to Ghaffarzadeh, there needs to be more focus on intermediate graphene-based products, such as masterbatches and inks, in order to prove graphene’s functional benefits.

"There is no point saying your graphene is better than the guy’s next door if you can’t demonstrate this in an intermediate material," he said.

He also noted the increasing presence of China on the graphene scene, pointing out that Asia is leading the world in patented products and processes in the sector.

While this trend is a positive for graphene development as a whole, it serves as a reminder that the space is a fiercely competitive one and not all companies chasing commercial graphene products can take home a share of the spoils.

Fighter jet F22 Raptor_DVIDSHUB 
Graphene has been credited with the ability to make military aircraft invisible, but developers are now looking at more modest targets such as conductive inks (source: DVIDSHUB). 

 






  • Dr Siva Bohm | 02 May 2015, 1:52 PM

    Energy Storage and Harvesting area Graphene will play significant impact. Watch the space!!