Challenges and opportunities in graphene commercialization
Written By Marko Spasenovic
In the past couple of years, graphene has been rapidly moving from the lab to the marketplace. Although there is great interest in the commercialization of graphene, there are various predictions on how long it will take for certain applications to reach the market. In Nature Nanotechnology's “Graphene Applications” focus issue (October 2014), Graphenea's Amaia Zurutuza and Applied Graphene Materials' Claudio Marinelli discuss the factors that could affect the pace of commercialization of graphene.
The publishing of the first experimental papers on graphene 10 years ago triggered a wave of research that splashed all corners of the world. Given graphene's spectacular properties (carrier mobility, heat conductivity, optical transparency, etc) in its purest form, a desire to use graphene for novel technologies quickly followed.
There are 44 companies currently marketing graphene-based materials, according to the commentary paper. Still, only a handful of products containing graphene have reached the market, like for example the tennis racket by Head, the battery strap by Vorbeck, or the phone touch screen by Samsung. These are widely regarded as a modest initial market entry, rather than a full-force commercialization wave, while the current market is widely dominated by sales of raw graphene materials. However, all market research reports project a considerable expansion of the market in the next 5-10 years, although the scope and pace of that expansion will depend on various hard-to-predict factors.
The only problem with graphene is that high-quality graphene is a great conductor that does not have a band gap (it can’t be switched off). Therefore to use graphene in the creation of future nano-electronic devices, a band gap will need to be engineered into it, which will, in turn, reduce its electron mobility to that of levels currently seen in strained silicon films. This essentially means that future research and development needs to be carried out in order for graphene to replace silicon in electrical systems in the future. However, recently a few research teams have shown that not only is this possible, it is probable, and we are looking at months, rather than years, until this is achieved at least at a basic level. Some say that these kinds of studies should be avoided, though, as it is akin to changing graphene to be something it is not.
To put some numbers on the projections, the paper resorts to past experiences with paradigm-shifting nanotechnologies, such as carbon fibers and carbon nanotubes. For example, the production of carbon fibers reached 4,600 tpa within 8 years from the first significant increase in carbon fiber patent number. The production of carbon nanotubes also reached the same level within 10 years of the first patent surge of interest. So far, and according to market projections, graphene is trailing in terms of production per annum. At the same time, there has been a rise in the number of graphene producing companies and the number of patents, which puts a discrepancy between projections and reality.
There are a few factors that could slow the adoption of graphene. One such factor is limited production volume. Although there are a rising number of methods of making various forms of graphene, the volume production for each of those methods stays low. One of the biggest challenges of the graphene industry will be to reach volume production in the next 2-5 years. The focus will have to be on material consistency and production cost.
Cost, of course, is an important factor in itself. Cost has come down considerably since the first commercial appearance of graphene. In the past two years, the price of sheet graphene has dropped to a third, while the price of powdered (including liquid) graphene went down to a quarter of its starting price. Still, the initial material cost is high, promoting applications that exploit multiple graphene properties, and leading to initial adoption of high-margin applications.
Other factors that may slow the adoption of graphene are resistance by current technologies (for example ITO, now used for transparent conductor applications), storage and transport (especially for graphene in solution), and health and safety. As with many nanotechnologies, health and safety regulations are not clearly laid out yet, and this is something that the industry will have to take care of.
"The industry is well aware of the challenges and opportunities lying ahead in the years to come and is ready to deal with them."
On the upside, there are factors which are expected to accelerate adoption of graphene. For instance, manufacturing and making available intermediate materials is crucial for moving graphene from a materials market to a components market. The challenge is to sift through the enormous body of novel graphene compounds and recognize the potential of a given compound for a specific application.
Processing graphene in the form which customers can easily integrate into their products is also a key challenge for the industry. In case of graphene films, for example, manufacturers will have to supply graphene on a substrate which is readily integrated into the end-user process, or the user will have to grow the graphene in-house. In case of powdered forms of graphene, providing material that is compatible with current technologies of the chemical and polymer industry will be essential.
Niche applications with quick turnover that meet some unmet technology needs could also speed the adoption of graphene. For example, graphene could be used for DNA sequencing, membranes and filtration, thermal management, photodetectors, OLEDs, etc.
Finally, with the broadening of the spectrum of graphene-based materials and processes, recently initiated efforts to standardize the definition of different types of graphene will certainly help speed up the commercialization of graphene.
The authors conclude that although commercialization of a novel material can on average take up to 20 years, graphene is on a good track to beat that deadline. The industry is well aware of the challenges and opportunities lying ahead in the years to come and is ready to deal with them.