Graphite 2015: Graphene’s invisible potential

By Laura Syrett, James Sean Dickson
Published: Friday, 11 December 2015

Hype and disappointment have been tough taskmasters for the graphene industry since the material was first isolated 11 years ago, but while the clamour surrounding the sector may have died down, developers are getting close to finding real, if not sensational, applications for the nanocarbon.

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.

 Graphene block_Jodi Green
Rolling on: Research into commercial applications for graphene is progressing steadily but quietly (source: Jodi Green, via Flickr). 

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 uses.

"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 week.

"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 building block.

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.

Production capacity

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 applications.

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 future.

"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 application.

"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 overcapacity.

"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 commercial progress.

"Standardisation is needed, but while that’s being put together, we’re not waiting – we’re getting into the market," he said.

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