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 "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
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
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."
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
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.
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
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).