IDTechEx ‘16: Graphene continues to look to practical uses

By Myles McCormick
Published: Saturday, 21 May 2016

Industry players in graphene continue to hone their sights on more immediately practicable uses, but still emphasise what the future of the substance may hold.

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 May. 

"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. 

Graphene1  

A layer of graphene being exfoliated from graphite. The industry
is focusing on practical, near term uses for the nanocarbon. 
University of Manchester 


Great Expectations

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 match. 

"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 practical. 

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 demand. 

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 mentioned. 

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 goal.

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. 

Sensors

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 explosives. 

The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, Spain, is developing graphene-based sensors for remote health monitoring. 

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 delegates. 

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 present. 

"The market remains overhyped," said Martin Lohe, industry project coordinator at Dresden University of Technology in Germany. 

Baker, meanwhile, described the market as "still immature". 

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 delegates. 

"The market is ripe for consolidation," he said.