Widely regarded as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, graphene’s beginnings are modest. The 2D material was first produced in 2004, when two professors at the University of Manchester used Scotch tape to peel flakes of graphene off a chunk of graphite.
The material is a crystalline allotrope of carbon, a characteristic it shares with diamonds and graphite. Put simply, all three are made up of carbon atoms that are bonded together in different ways. For instance, graphite consists of carbon atoms bonded together in sheets of a hexagonal lattice, while graphene is made up of a single sheet of graphite.
Of course, simply knowing about graphene’s composition doesn’t explain why so many people are excited about it. To give investors a better idea of the promise it holds — in terms of both applications and profit potential — the Investing News Network has put together a brief overview on graphene basics, including production, uses and its future. Together, they are a start to answering the question “what is graphene?”
What is graphene? Graphene production
As mentioned, graphene has a short history and was first produced in 2004 using the Scotch tape method described above. Also known as the micromechanical cleavage technique, the Graphene Flagship, whose mission is to bring graphene out of the lab and into society, states that advantages to the process are its cheapness and low equipment requirements.
That said, the Scotch tape method cannot be executed at a large scale. As a result, other methods of production have been developed. For instance, graphene can be grown on silicon carbide and other substrates via chemical vapor deposition; in addition, graphene flakes can be created when natural graphite is placed in a solution. Direct chemical synthesis can also be used to make “small graphene structures with well-defined geometries,” states the Graphene Flagship.
What is graphene? Graphene applications
The professors who first produced graphene eventually went on to earn a Nobel Prize for their work with the material, and a quick glance at the things graphene is capable of makes it easy to see why.
As The Guardian explains, graphene’s impressive list of characteristics includes being a better electricity conductor than copper, impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel — but six times lighter — and “almost perfectly transparent since it only absorbs 2% of light.” Further, “chemical components can be added to its surface to alter its properties.”
Explaining how those properties can be applied, the University of Manchester states that graphene is making inroads in diverse industries, including transport, medicine, electronics, energy, defense and desalination.
A specific example of how graphene may be used in the future recently came out of the battery space — researchers have discovered that the material may be able to double the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries, which have risen to the fore since Tesla Motors’ (NASDAQ:TSLA) announcement that it plans to build a massive lithium-ion battery gigafactory.
What is graphene? Future outlook
While that all sounds pretty positive, graphene by no means comes without drawbacks. One key issue is production costs. As mentioned, there are multiple ways to produce graphene; however, they are not cost effective. Indeed, as Dr. Gordon Chiu of graphene research, development and investment company Grafoid has emphasized, making graphene is not yet economically feasible.
That issue is tied into another important consideration: applications. While the above information shows that there are many potential applications for graphene, the cost of producing the material means that as yet there are no noteworthy commercial applications for it.
Scientists are of course looking to change that — the Graphene Flagship is just one group that’s working on the issue. Formed in 2013, the organization has a budget of 1 billion euros and hopes to see graphene being used in society in the next decade.
A final issue is that a little graphene goes a long way. That means even if commercial applications for the material are developed, there may still not be significant demand. Stephen Riddle of Asbury Carbons has predicted that while graphene will be “a raw material of the future,” there will not be much demand for it in the near term.
Despite those drawbacks, many believe prospects for graphene are good. It will certainly be interesting to see what new applications for the material are developed and if ultimately commercial applications are found.
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This article was first published on October 14, 2015.
Securities Disclosure: I, Charlotte McLeod, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.