The first production of graphene in a University
of Manchester laboratory in 2004 (see pp26-27), using
the now famous 'scotch tape’ method, captured the
interest of a large body of scientific researchers.
Nearly all of graphene’s spectacular
predicted properties have since been confirmed experimentally.
The scotch-tape, or exfoliation production technique, yields
graphene of a very high quality, but only in a small quantity,
with an area generally of only a few tens of micrometers
squared. One would typically be lucky to find several flakes of
that size on a 1cm2 substrate. The low yield
obtained with the exfoliation method has not been a problem for
testing fundamental science, however it would be too small for
any conceivable application.
In 2006, researchers succeeded in growing
large-area graphene by chemical vapour deposition (CVD), the
first method of mass producing graphene. CVD yields almost 100%
coverage of metal films with monolayer graphene. The method of
CVD growth on metal and subsequent transfer of graphene to
various useful substrates has rapidly overcome many hurdles,
recently yielding a continuous film of graphene on a 100 metre
The growing number of graphene researchers
coupled with the wide accessibility of CVD growth chambers
quickly led to a blossoming of the number of companies
marketing graphene sheets. The end user has for the most part
been the lab researcher, with almost no excursion into the
The primary reason for the relatively slow
inclusion of industry has of course been the price of graphene,
which is still higher than that of silicon, and orders of
magnitude higher than the price of competing transparent
conductor material, indium tin oxide (ITO). It is expected that
graphene will beat the price of bulk silicon in 2016, but it
probably will not match the price of ITO before 2020. Since
graphene-based devices could not beat the price of devices
based on more mature materials, the young graphene industry has
been looking for those applications where graphene can offer
novel benefits or unprecedented functionality.
In more recent years, graphene obtained with
chemical methods, such as liquid phase exfoliation or the
modified Hummers method, has become an instant hit with lab
researchers as well as a myriad of companies. Chemically
exfoliated graphene is of lower quality than sheet graphene,
however it is cheaper to produce and is readily obtained in
large volumes. Graphene made using these methods is typically
in the form of a powder, which means it can be used as an
additive in composites, opening a door to a much larger market
than the graphene research space, spreading across the
automotive, sporting, construction, aeronautic and other
traditional large industries, but also entering developing
technologies such as 3D printing, wearable clothing and printed
This most recent development pushed graphene
closer to real-world applications and ignited a new direction
for the market to expand into, enabling a step up in production
volumes and a further reduction of the price of graphene.
Early graphene market focused
The early graphene market (2009-2012) revolved
around feeding the appetite of the rapidly growing graphene
research community. Probably the first company to offer
graphene in its product catalog was Graphene Supermarket,
established in 2009 in Calverton, New York State, US. The
'supermarket’ was the sales outpost of Graphene
Laboratories, a research startup run by a group of scientists
Graphene Supermarket offered CVD-grown graphene
on copper substrates and on the most commonly used silicon
dioxide/silicon (SiO2/Si) substrate, which allows
tuning the carrier concentration by back gating. The initial
offering was basic, the only other item in the catalog being
clean SiO2/Si wafers for customers to do their own
exfoliation. However, due to the exploding demand and Graphene
Supermarket’s ability to deliver high-quality
graphene in a hassle-free manner, the recipe was a highly
This simple yet effective approach soon spread to
Europe and the Far East, with the establishment of Graphenea in
Spain in 2010 and Graphene Square in South Korea in early 2012.
Together with Graphene Supermarket, these companies managed to
quickly master CVD growth and establish themselves as the
default graphene suppliers across three continents, setting any
latecomers at the disadvantage of having to invent advanced
applications for an immature material.
Still, with the low entry cost of CVD machines
(in the order of $100k) and quick maturing of the technology of
CVD growth, even these three companies had to keep inventing to
alleviate the effect of research labs and universities
performing their own CVD growth.
In fact, in the short term of the early graphene
market, it turned out to be more profitable to provide CVD
chambers themselves than the graphene made in those chambers,
as exemplified by the success of Texas, US-based
planarTECH started in 2012 to sell CVD chambers
specially tuned for graphene and by 2014 had already surpassed
$1m in revenue (the entire graphene market turnover in 2013 was
€6.6m ($6.95m**)). planarTECH aims to double its revenue
in 2015. Since similar chambers can be used to grow other
monolayer materials such as transition metal dichalcogenides
which are gaining popularity, marketing CVD machines should
prove to be solid business in the medium term as well.
Overall, there are about 44 graphene producers on
the market now, and the graphene news website Graphene
Tracker’s business directory
contains over 80 entries.
Recognising the potential of graphene
In the long term, graphene holds enormous
potential, but the trick for success lies in recognising the
correct applications of each variant of graphene and aligning
to the needs of the target customer accordingly.
Because the applications are so many, as are the
forms and variants of the material itself, we have recently
witnessed the rise of several group efforts to categorise and
organise graphene products, applications and future directions.
The most notable of these organisations are the European
Graphene Flagship consortium, funded around 50% by the European
Commission and 50% by European businesses, and the Graphene
Stakeholders Association, a US-based non-profit organisation.
The Flagship has been selected as one of two of
Europe’s key Future Emerging Technologies (FETs),
with a promise of €1bn in funding across 10 years.
Early this year, the Graphene Flagship published
its science and technology roadmap, targeting research areas
designed to take graphene and related 2D materials from
academic laboratories into society.
Clearly, the majority of the application basis
will be completed in about a decade, but we expect to see a
growth of niche applications in which graphene enhances
existing products throughout the years.
There is very little graphene in end-user
products at present, but that has been changing in recent
years, and even months. Although there have been rumors
recently about Samsung mobile devices using graphene as part of
their touchscreen, there has been no official confirmation of
this from Samsung.
The first commercial product to contain any
graphene was the HEAD Graphene Speed Pro tennis racket,
introduced in 2013. The racket was at that time being promoted
by the likes of top Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and
Russia’s Maria Sharapova, giving a boost to
graphene’s already immense popularity. The
inclusion of a small amount of graphene apparently made certain
regions of the rackets lighter, giving the
player’s swing more power. HEAD seems to be
satisfied with the success of graphene, having recently
launched the JOY range of skis, which also incorporate the
Generally the trend of using graphene in sports
equipment is expected to continue, given the
material’s low density (which is made even smaller
in specialty nanostructures such as the graphene aerogel),
excellent flexibility and durability.
Another application area that graphene has
excelled in is conductive ink technology. Vorbeck is the
pioneer in this field, having first introduced Vor-Ink,
following up with Vor-Power (flexible battery, presented in the
form of a bag strap), Vor-Flex (graphene-enhanced durable
rubber) and Vor-Tag (RFID tags). The company has partnered with
Crawford composites to produce a prototype formula race car
enhanced by graphene, sporting graphene tyres, batteries,
antennae, body, printed on-wheel circuitry, and various
sensors. Clearly, the car is a prototype, aimed at popularising
graphene and showcasing its potential reach, but the technology
is simply too expensive at the moment to be applied in
commercial products. Nevertheless, defence applications are
sure to follow in the near term, with civilian use arriving
shortly after that.
Sports equipment maker HEAD
used tennis stars Maria Sharapova
(pictured) and Novak Djokovic to promote its
graphene-doped tennis rackets.
Predicting market volumes
Given graphene’s relatively young
age and limited current commercial use, it is hard or
impossible to predict future market volumes to any reasonable
accuracy. Adding to the difficulty is the lack of
standardisation for graphene, with the name being loosely
applied to an entire spectrum of materials ranging from
monolayer atomic sheets of carbon to crumpled-up carbon-based
The first of these is expected to be of great use
in microelectronics, sensing, and transparent flexible
electronics, whereas materials closer to the large side of that
spectrum should open up novel applications in 3D printing,
flexible batteries, enhanced composites, construction,
aerospace and the automotive industry, amongst others.
Nevertheless, there have been a few estimates of
the potential size of the graphene market in the coming years.
These include $150m in 2020, with a $43m share in North
America, according to Allied Market Research, and $400m in 2024
on the material level, up from $20m in 2014, according to
IDTechEx. However, these numbers address only
the amount of raw material sold, and do not include the
potentially enormous expansion of user industries.
For example, Research and Markets predicts 3D
printing to grow from $2bn in 2012 to $12bn in 2020. IDTechEx
predicts that wearable technology will grow at a similar or
slightly faster pace. If graphene were to be used by these two
industries in the same proportion as it is today, and assuming
that the same kind of expansion occurs in all other graphene
user industries, this would mean that over the next decade, the
market for graphene would grow to around six- or sevenfold its
present size, putting the value of the volume sold at
$100-150m. Of course, one would expect new applications to
arise and if graphene manages to gain supremacy over other
technologies for at least one of these applications, the market
volume could explode to several billion dollars.
Taking advantage of the disproportionate
hype-to-current-market-volume ratio, there have been several
attempts to form "graphene investment funds" or similar "get
rich quick" schemes, even including proposals to buy graphene
and store it in a warehouse for future resale.
But graphene is not a commodity and its price is
bound to decrease with time. It is a very exciting nanomaterial
with many potential uses, however it requires strong technical
expertise and top-notch business skills to make and sell.
To conclude, graphene is a supremely interesting
material, with potential impact on most of our daily lives.
That said, the material’s present early stage of
development means that graphene has been used mostly for
research purposes, with real-world applications just starting
to emerge. In a rapidly changing world with disruptive
technologies being invented by the day, it is hard to predict
exactly how and how much graphene will be used, but it seems
certain that graphene and related materials will enhance
everything from paper to space shuttles to gizmos that are hard
to imagine today. Investing in graphene is therefore a tough
call, which will require careful analysis and plenty of
*Marko Spasenovic holds a PhD in Physics from
the University of Twente, the Netherlands. He is the founder,
owner and administrator of Graphene Tracker, a graphene
business news website. He is also Assistant Professor at the
Institute of Physics in Belgrade, Serbia, as well as blogger
and online content manager for Graphenea and is on the Advisory
Board of the Graphene Stakeholders Association.
**Conversion made March 2015