Problems with nomenclature and analysis of
graphene’s physical properties continue to cloud
understanding of the carbon nanotech industry for those looking
at it from the outside. Yet, despite its naysayers, the
nanomaterial is steadily inching closer to becoming a
commercially viable product.
|Rolling on: Research
into commercial applications for graphene is progressing
steadily but quietly (source: Jodi Green, via
Loosely defined as a single layer of carbon atoms, which can
be synthesised from carbon-containing precursors or directly
exfoliated from naturally occurring graphite,
confusion begins to creep in when industry and media discuss
"graphene materials" as a class and inflate their potential
"Graphene ranges from graphene oxide,
right through to single film – or 'real’
graphene," Dr Andy Goodwin, commercial manager for the advanced
materials division of UK-based Thomas Swan & Co., told
delegates at IM’s
5th Graphite and Graphene Conference in London
"This does not mean that any of these
materials are good or bad, it just means they’re
different." He explained that multi-layer graphenes have
different properties and uses to single layer materials and
films and that research is still ongoing into how best to
exploit these varying characteristics.
Goodwin admitted that he thought there is
no "killer application" – a term that has come to
haunt the industry – for graphene today and perhaps
never will be. He suggested that, with billions of dollars
being poured into researching graphene’s potential
worldwide, what is likely to emerge is an understanding of
graphene as a "value-adding" material, rather than a product
Chris Spacie, chief technology officer at
Wales-headquartered Haydale Plc, which functionalises graphene
via a low-temperature plasma process for use in composites,
inks and coatings, said that achievable applications were more
important targets than sensational ones.
"We’re not going for sexy,
high-end markets but for realistic value that can turn over a
profit," Spacie said, adding that collaboration with end users
was crucial to understanding how graphene can be used to meet
existing needs, rather than exciting possibilities.
"Nobody is going to make [graphene] in
volume until there’s demand for it," he said.
The gap between what can be usefully
achieved and what generates headlines has been something of a
public relations problem for graphene, drawing attention to the
sector but also generating disappointment when the number or
scope of graphene products fall short of expectations.
Elena Polyakova, chief operating officer
at US-based Graphene 3D Lab complained that hype had harmed the
sector. One source of hype, she said, were companies trying to
raise money by claiming that they have more than they are
actually capable of producing. Another source has been
journalists taking numbers out of context from academic papers
and publishing exaggerated claims.
Graphene 3D Lab is developing
three-dimensional printing filaments with functional properties
for making products including circuits, sensors and batteries
– one of the areas that has been highlighted by sector
analysis as one of the most promising uses for graphene.
"A lot of people think commercialisation
of graphene is five-to-10 years away, but we have a number of
products that are very close," Polyakova said.
Graphene is credited as having been first
isolated by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at
the UK’s University of Manchester in 2004.
The university has since invested in a
National Graphene Institute (NGI), focused on researching
graphene and other nanomaterials for future commercial
Since its discovery,
graphene’s rise to prominence has tempted many
academic institutions, startup technology businesses,
established industrialists and graphite mining companies into
developing the nanocarbon.
James Baker, the NGI’s
business director, said that you could either look at graphene
as being 11 years old, or 11 years young. The latter category
tend to be more optimistic about the material’s
"We are starting to see people engineer
graphene into real products," he said, pointing to
graphene-containing sports equipment such as tennis racquets
manufactured by US company Head and bicycle tyres recently
launched by Europe-based
Vittoria Industries Ltd, as high profile examples of its
"Head has probably sold more than half a
million graphene tennis racquets, but this probably only used a
few kilograms of graphene," he said.
Whether demand for graphene can keep up
with production is a concern for the graphene industry and
Polyakova warned that the sector could already be close to
"It’s really hard to pin down
global capacity for making graphene," said Thomas
Swan’s Goodwin. He said that the lack of
standardisation was one of the chief barriers to quantifying
supply. Consett-headquartered Thomas Swan makes graphene using
a non-aggressive chemistry process from a range of natural
graphite grades as well as molybdenum compounds. According to
Goodwin, the company has commercial contacts for "hundreds of
kilos of graphene".
Despite this, Goodwin said he
couldn’t pick any winners in the graphene
commercialisation race. "I don’t have a list of
the materials that are going to be successful for graphene
because, to be honest, we don’t know what they are
yet," he said.
In terms of graphene pricing – a
field where estimates vary wildly from thousands to billions of
dollars per tonne – Goodwin said he expected graphene
would be priced at the same level as multi-wall nanotubes in
the medium term.
According to Ray Gibbs, CEO of Haydale,
the relatively low cost of graphene produced from natural
materials via simple processes would give this class of
materials a commercial advantage over synthesised graphene for
near term applications.
Haydale is working with a number of
industries to commercialise its graphene products but Gibbs
picked out the company’s collaboration with Alex
Thomson Racing, the Hugo Boss-sponsored extreme sailing team as
one of its flagship projects.
"There is no quicker route to market than
somebody who wants to make their boat go faster and better than
others," he said. Gibbs also agreed that while normalisation is
desirable for the graphene industry, this should not hold back
"Standardisation is needed, but while
that’s being put together, we’re not
waiting – we’re getting into the market,"