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
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
"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
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
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)
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
|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).