Everyone agrees that graphene is an amazing material. Graphene has better electron mobility than any metal, is one atom thin, is flexible, and all that while being stronger than steel. The 2010 Nobel prize in physics confirmed the material's potential, and scientific breakthroughs keep rolling out. Graphene has been shown to enhance batteries, solar cells, electronic transistors, flexible displays, sensors, and material strength. Thousands of patents are being filed every year for inventions ranging from graphene tires to flexible cellphones.
What is more difficult to predict, however, is when and how graphene will make it to the market in large quantities. The main arguing point is the price of graphene.
"In several years, bulk graphene prices may drop below that of silicon, enabling graphene to enter all markets"
The Quality Of The Graphene Affects The Price
The price of graphene is linked to its quality, and not all applications require superb material quality. For example, graphene oxide powder (graphene functionalized with oxygen and hydrogen) is inexpensive and has been used to make a conductive graphene paper, for DNA analysis, and for other advanced composite and biotechnology applications. Graphene oxide in solution sells for 99 euros per 250 mL from Graphenea. However, the electronic properties of graphene oxide at the moment are not sufficiently good for batteries, flexible touch screens, solar cells, LEDs, smart windows, and other advanced opto-electronic applications.
Mechanically exfoliated graphene (obtained with the famous “scotch tape” technique) comes in small, high-quality flakes. Exfoliated graphene has so far shown to hold the best physical properties, reaching towards theoretically predicted current conduction, mechanical strength, etc. The coverage of mechanically exfoliated graphene, however, is only on the order of a few small flakes per square centimeter, not nearly enough for applications. In addition, the price of such graphene can be on the order of several thousands of dollars per flake.
CVD graphene, available with high quality from Graphenea, offers sufficient quality for almost any graphene application. The price of CVD graphene is linked to production volume and costs of transferring from the copper substrate, on which it is grown, onto another substrate. Graphenea's industrial scale graphene technology leads to low CVD graphene cost for bulk orders (see graph). Bulk orders of such graphene can be cheaper than, for example, silicon carbide, an important semiconductor. Graphenea has filed a patent for a low cost industrial scale CVD growth and transfer process.
Technology Reduces The Price Of Graphene
In several years, bulk graphene prices may drop below that of silicon, enabling graphene to enter all markets now dominated by silicon, such as computing, chip manufacturing, sensors, solar cells, etc. In the meantime, graphene will continue to be used for applications that other materials simply cannot support. For example, silicon cannot be integrated into future flexible smartphones, because silicon is brittle and will break upon bending. Graphene offers a competitive solution.
Graphene prices are not as high as one might expect from such a young technology. One must remember that carbon fiber, for example, was invented in the 1950's but its use didn't take off for another 30-40 years. Carbon fiber faced a series of challenges including an implementation to the market which was too soon and resulted in poor products. Carbon fiber is now ubiquitous in advanced composite materials. The material survived the long fight by finding applications which were not possible with other materials. Perhaps graphene will follow a road that is on one side guarded by unique applications, and on the other by constant technological progress, leading to widespread use of graphene in the coming decades.