The move to more real-world applications for what - until
recent times - was referred to as a 'miracle
material’ is nothing new, but producers still have
one eye on the possibility of a hugely lucrative future,
IM heard at the IDTechEx Graphene 2D Materials
2016 conference and exhibition, held in Berlin in
"We’re moving towards that inflection curve.
[Whether you choose to invest] just depends what your risk
reward profile is," John Buckland, CEO of UK-based Perpetuus
Advanced Materials told IM.
But short term realism remains key as investors demand
payback. Uses as additives in composites, rubbers, inks and
coatings are graphene’s market’s main
end uses at present.
A layer of graphene being exfoliated from graphite.
is focusing on practical, near term uses for the
University of Manchester
Graphene has been a victim of its own potential as hyperbole
generated by coverage of its discovery in 2004 in the
University of Manchester, UK, caused investor demands to soar
to levels the industry has been so far unable to
"Reporters built up the hype around the
'killer-app’," Dmitris Presvytis of Thomas Swann
told IM. Academic excitement caused an influx
of funding before the theoretical had moved to the
But now producers believe that with a 'chicken and
egg’ process of increased applications leading to
increased availability and vice versa, the industry is now on
track to make real gains.
"Graphene is both 11 years old and 11 years young," James
Baker, business directors at the UK’s National
Graphene Insitute at the University of Manchester, told
IM. While it has moved quite quickly towards
the market since its conception, it was discovered relatively
recently. Yet at the same time, being a carbon, its basic
make-up is nothing new.
Uses as an additive in the previously mentioned applications
provide an immediate-term use for the nanocarbon –
"simple situations where adding graphene can improve materials
and make them tougher and add market benefit," said Baker
– but these do not provide major demand.
"No one is currently looking for tonnes of graphene," said
Baker, noting that at present there is more capacity than
But the market has moved from what he calls a "push" to
"pull" dynamic. Rather than being a technology looking for a
problem, downstream users realise the potential benefits of
using graphene in their products and seek it out.
Potential future uses for graphene are numerous: batteries;
supercapacitators; and fuel cells (which could have ten-times
the performance ability of lithium-ion technology) are all
Baker cited water desalination – where
graphene-based membranes, already used in oil-water separation,
could be used to provide fresh water – as a long term
Thermal management uses for the dissipation of heat from
electronics and radiators are also pointed to as potential
end-markets, while medical uses, too, are oft-cited.
Glucosensors in blood or teardrops could provide a highly
accurate method of measuring health conditions.
Indeed, it is in the "sensory" field that a great deal of
opportunity is expected to arise. Inigo Charola of Graphenea, a
graphene producer based in San Sebastian in the north of Spain,
described this sector as "the one to watch".
According to the University of Manchester, the nature of
graphene means that every atom in the material is exposed to
the environment, allowing it to sense changes in its
surroundings on a molecular level.
This provides outlets in reducing food waste, with so-called
"smart" food packaging products using graphene sensors to
detect atmospheric changes caused by decaying food; in crop
protection, where sensors could be used to monitor the
existence of harmful grasses and pinpoint ideal crop locations;
and in defense where they could be used in early warning
mechanisms to detect chemical weaponry and
The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona,
Spain, is developing graphene-based sensors for remote health
Flexible and semi-transparent graphene sheets can be
sensitised to light with the use of colloidal quantum dots,
Stijn Goosens, research engineer at the institute, told
A photoplethysmogram (PPG) device being developed by the
group aims to use changes in lighting to measure pulse rates on
patients from smart devices.
An immature market
But for all its potential in sensors and beyond, realists at
the IDTechEx conference consistently pointed back to the
limited commercial realities of the graphene market at
"The market remains overhyped," said Martin Lohe, industry
project coordinator at Dresden University of Technology in
Baker, meanwhile, described the market as "still
He noted it is moving in the right direction, however, with
proponents moving away from listing superlative properties and
towards honing its potential in real world uses.
"Two years ago, an event like this would have been dominated
by scientific papers; one year ago it would have been all about
powder samples; now we are looking at prototypes, however
simple, for real applications," said Baker.
Graphenea’s Charola gives the market another
three-to-five years to take off.
"It’s difficult to predict the future. These
things take a while to get off the ground," he said.
The industry remains fragmented, however. While around $200m
has been invested in new companies in recent years, many of
those that went public in the 2013 boom have seen their
valuations halve, Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh of IDTechX told
"The market is ripe for consolidation," he said.