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
nano-material is steadily inching closer
to becoming a commercially viable product, delegates at
IM’s 5th Graphite and
Graphene Conference in London heard in December.
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., said. "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
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
to 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
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,"
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, is companies trying to raise money by
claiming that they have more than they are actually capable of
producing. Another source of exaggeration 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 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
"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 quant-
ifying 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