Since its discovery in 2004, there has been a running joke
that graphene can do anything, except get out of the
The 2D material, described in simple terms as a single layer
of carbon atoms that can be derived from a number of
precursors, including natural graphite, has been credited with
a multitude of applications, with cancer cures and invisible
aircraft being among the most eye-catching.
Palpable commercial achievements for graphene, which include
security packaging for store goods and coatings for light
bulbs, generally haven’t caught the
public’s imagination in quite the same way.
Graphene’s development has been hampered by a
nagging feeling that the world was led to expect too much from
the nanocarbon "wonder material", meaning that many of its
early fans, and investors, lost interest when transparent
phones and superfast-charging batteries didn’t
start rolling off production lines within a matter of
Yet graphene’s marketing power is still strong
and some of the most successful attempts to keep the material
in the public eye have been by major brands, dexterously
turning its geekiness into glamour.
Austrian sports equipment maker, Head, has successfully
enlisted tennis stars like Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova to
promote is range of graphene-enhanced tennis rackets and, in
2013, the Parisian beauty house, Yves Saint Laurent, launched a
"graphene inspired" mascara, which was modelled by Cara
Delevingne. The cosmetic’s formula, which consists
of three polymers, soft waxes and a pigment distribution agent,
doesn’t actually contain graphene but "mimics its
structure and properties".
Although many "serious" graphene developers deplore such
promotional stunts on the grounds that they detract from
graphene’s true importance and potential, others
argue that the wall of secrecy screening graphene intellectual
property (IP) from the public eye doesn’t do the
science much good either.
"The main problem facing the graphene market is the lack of
clear knowledge and understanding about the material, processes
and specific propositions of graphene producers," Giulio
Cesareo, CEO of Directa Plus, an Italian company specialising
in graphene-enhanced materials such as textiles and rubber,
Established in 2005, Directa Plus makes graphene from
natural graphite using a patented process, which begins with
plasma super expansion, heating the raw material to "the
temperature of the surface of the sun" (5,505°C) to produce
carbon flakes, in what is known as a "top-down" approach to
producing graphene. This is the opposite of "bottom-up"
methods, which make small precursor particles grow in size, as
in the chemical vapour deposition (CVD) technique –
the way most graphene is made. According to Cesareo, the
Directa Plus method is low-cost but retains a high quality
The company wants to change the perception that graphene
will never live up to expectations by getting its material
swiftly into existing products and brands. It opened its
graphene factory in Lomazzo, near Milan, in 2014, where it
currently produces 30 tpa graphene and has signed collaboration
agreements with Swiss performance tyre manufacturer, Vittoria
Industries Ltd and Italian sportswear brand, Colmar, to develop
and sell products containing Directa Plus’
Graphene Plus (G+) material.
Aside from sports materials, Directa Plus is also targeting
electronics, composites and environmental applications and has
signed more than 300 non-disclosure agreements in the last
three years, with more products containing G+ expected to be
launched in 2016.
Cesareo insists that using its graphene offers genuine
improvements to materials, rather than just a marketing story.
Vittoria’s G+ range includes the Corsa Speed
bicycle tyre, which, Directa Plus claims, is the fastest tyre
of its kind to be independently tested and sits at the premium
end of the market. "Yet is still affordable, which is
incredible when you look at the potential advantages it gives
the cyclist," Cesareo said.
International model Cara Delevingne was
used to launch Yves Saint Laurent’s
"graphene inspired" mascara. (crizeel ong, via
Need for speed
Ray Gibbs, CEO of UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries Plc,
thinks that the sportswear and equipment market is a good route
for graphene to gain commercial traction, because it
isn’t as highly regulated as some of the other
markets graphene is targeting, such as electronics and
Longer term, however, Gibbs believes that graphene
developers need to set their sights on bigger prizes and
actively pursue commercial goals, rather than waiting to
receive funding from government-backed programmes.
"Industry has got to pick up the baton and get on with it,"
Gibbs told IM. Haydale’s
strategy, which is based on producing graphene from a graphitic
source, rather than CVD, rests on being able to control its
whole supply chain and using this as a springboard to get its
products to market as quickly as possible.
In March this year, the company announced a collaboration
with Switzerland-based Hunstman Advanced Materials GmbH, part
of US-headquartered Huntsman Corp., to develop
graphene-enhanced epoxy resins for Huntman’s range
of ARALDITE adhesives for use in carbon fibre composites.
Prior to signing the cooperation agreement, Haydale
self-funded a number of trials on incorporating its graphene
nanoplatelets into epoxy resins. "We paid for these ourselves
because, if we had just sat and waited, the market would
probably have moved on, but also because we wanted to hold onto
the IP," Gibbs explained.
Alongside epoxy resins, Haydale is working on adding
graphene to carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and inks for screen
printing – applications for which Asia is the
world’s fastest growing market.
The Asian graphene scene, while representing a large
potential customer base for graphene products, is becoming
something of a sensitive topic for "Western" companies looking
to cash in on the material as paranoia about industrial
espionage takes hold.
In mid-March, the UK’s Sunday Times
claimed that academics were "boycotting" the UK’s
£61m ($86.4m*) National Graphene Institute (NGI), after
one of the research centre’s partners,
Taiwan-based BGT Materials, subsequently agreed to work with a
Chinse manufacturer and university on graphene technology.
According to the article, academics at the NGI have voiced
concerns about the protection of IP and the British government
is reported to be considering opening an enquiry into the
A spokesperson for the NGI, which is attached to the
University of Manchester, told the paper that it had
investigated the allegations and found no evidence that BGT
Materials "had access, outside of any confidentiality
undertaking, to confidential research programmes or that there
were insufficient safeguards to protect the
university’s intellectual property." It also
refuted the allegation that the NGI was being boycotted by
Gibbs told IM that he felt the article had
dealt with the issue unfairly, but conceded that Asian
competition over graphene IP is always a background concern for
companies like Haydale.
"There is risk but also opportunity in working with Asia,"
he said. "If you want to be in step with Asian companies, you
need to set yourself up to move quickly. That’s
not something the UK has traditionally been well placed to
For its part, Haydale is working with tier one suppliers to
major Asian electronics like Samsung and LG. "These are our
route to market," Gibbs explained.
Italian graphene company Directa Plus has
successfully enhanced tyres made
by Vittoria Industries for racing bikes. (Directa
For producers of natural graphite, one of the contenders to
be the raw material of choice for the graphene industry, the
graphene tide rose and ebbed back in the early 2010s, leaving
many washed up after it became apparent that demand for the
nanocarbon would not emerge soon enough or require enough
graphite to support entire mining operations.
There is, however, plenty of credible research to suggest
that exfoliation of natural graphite is a viable way of
producing graphene of higher quality and at a lower cost
compared to forms of the nanocarbon produced via other methods.
Most graphite companies are therefore keeping one eye on the
technology as a potential future market.
One such business is Canada-listed Flinders Resources Ltd,
which owns the mothballed Woxna graphite mine in Sweden. In
September last year, Flinders announced that its Swedish
subsidiary, Woxna Graphite AB, had been chosen as an industry
partner by Swedish Graphene, a government-funded programme to
research and commercialise graphene produced from
Flinders’ CEO, Blair Way, is realistic about
the share graphene could take of the natural graphite market.
"I don’t know if the commercialisation of graphene
is really going to have a huge impact on graphite," he told
To put this in context, Mikael Ranggard, chairman of Woxna
Graphite, pointed out that: "If we were to make a new
graphene-based display for every mobile in the world, we would
need less than 100kg of graphene".
But small can still be valuable. There a few meaningful
estimates available for the price of graphene derived from
natural graphite, but according to Spanish nanomaterials
graphene company, Graphenea, the retail price of its
CVD-produced graphene oxide today is around €24.85/g
($27.58/g), or $27,580/tonne. This is compares to current
prices of around $1,100/tonne for large flake natural
Even though the price of graphene is going down
(Graphenea’s material is 99.9% cheaper than it was
in 2010), if companies like Flinders can secure even a modest
outlet for Woxna graphite into the graphene industry, then this
could be an added lucrative bonus to business models primarily
geared to supply larger volume markets.
With the backing of Swedish Graphene, Flinders and its
partner, 2D Fab AB, will seek support from Swedish industry to
evaluate graphene’s potential for use in printing,
energy and surface treatment applications.
Way told IM that buildings coated with
graphene for capturing energy could be "a huge thing", but that
this kind of technology would need to be complemented by
electricity storage devices for it to become a viable
"The concept pf all this technology converging will be a
point where you can capture the energy, but it’s a
while away," he said.
One of the other graphene projects Flinders is looking into
is nanocarbon paints for paper. "If you coat the paper with
graphene, then it has electrical conductivity and you can track
where it is, so the paper mills can value add to what
they’re selling," Ranggard told
IM. "But realistically, this technology is
probably still five years away, maybe even 10 –
it’s frightening how long it takes technology to
get into the mainstream," Way added.
Out of the lab rat race
One of the chief complaints frequently sounded by many in
the graphene industry is that the sector has become too crowded
and that the quality of research and products is wildly
"Because of the high volume and variety of graphene products
on the market, there is little in the way of regulations and
standards in Europe. In Asia, it has been hard to get a clear
idea of what is actually going on," Directa Plus’
Cesareo told IM.
Cesareo believes that if an independent body was established
to regulate graphene production, it would help boost the market
and also help coordinate efforts to establish health and safety
legislation relating to graphene – issues which have
to be ironed out before the material can be used in certain
Along with Haydale’s Gibbs, Cesareo holds the
view that while state-backed research initiatives such as the
European Graphene Flagship programme, are welcome sources of
support for graphene developers, they are unlikely to deliver
immediate commercial returns.
"Real innovation requires an unexpected combination of
knowledge, market awareness and technology," Cesareo said.
"As we’ve demonstrated, graphene is already
’out of the lab. It is undeniable that
applications for graphene which currently seem futuristic will
eventually reach the market, but ultimately, the graphene
industry is still young."
"It is essential that the companies pioneering graphene
research now have the support they need to facilitate the
research which has been the backbone of the industry and will
be crucial to its future," he added.
*Conversions made March 2016