Despite its exciting applications, graphene is not currently widely used, and cost is a key reason why. Here’s a look at the factors that impact graphene cost.
Researchers are understandably excited about graphene’s many desirable and unique properties, and believe it has the potential to spur advances in a variety of sectors — from transport to medicine to electronics.
However, despite its many exciting applications, graphene is not currently widely used, and its cost is a key reason why. While the price of graphene has come down since 2010, when it reportedly cost tens of thousands of dollars to make a piece of graphene the size of a postage stamp, it remains expensive (though specific pricing data is hard to come by).
With that in mind, here’s a look at how graphene is made, and why the production process plays such a key role in graphene cost.
Origins of graphene
Graphene’s origin story is by now well known. The 2D material was first produced in 2004, when two professors at the University of Manchester used Scotch tape to peel flakes of it off a chunk of graphite.
The story gives the impression that it’s easy to make graphene, but that’s not entirely true. Yes, anyone with some Scotch tape and a piece of graphite can do it. But although it is simple to make a small amount of the material, it’s actually not easy to make a lot of graphene.
An article published by The Atlantic sums up the situation well: by using the Scotch tape method it’s possible to produce a very small amount of graphene; however, the material’s myriad applications “require more than a tiny flake of graphene, and scaling up production requires something other than a really big piece of scotch tape.”
The Scotch tape method of making graphene is known as exfoliation, and there are other ways to create graphene via exfoliation as well. For instance, a diamond wedge can be used to cleave graphene layers.
But what are some other ways of making graphene? Currently the most popular method is chemical vapor deposition (CVD). As the Atlantic explains, the process involves a mix of gases reacting with a surface to create a graphene layer. The process creates high-quality graphene, but the graphene is often damaged when it comes time to detach it from its substrate.
Looking at the process in greater depth, Graphenea states that another problem with CVD is that it’s difficult to create a totally uniform layer of graphene on a substrate.
Graphenea also notes that much work is being put into reducing problems with CVD. For example, scientists are experimenting with treating the substrate before the reaction to create graphene takes place. Even so, it’s expected that it will take a long time for the wrinkles to be smoothed out.
The Graphene Flagship identifies a number of other ways of making graphene as well, including direct chemical synthesis; the material can also be made by putting natural graphite in a solution.
Some of the latest innovations in graphene creation don’t involve the use of chemicals and can be conducted in the open air, as opposed to in vacuums. One method that was patented in 2017 is able to create larger quantities of graphene using acetylene, oxygen and a spark plug
Unfortunately, this process creates unrefined chunks of material and not sheets, meaning more money must be spent to make the graphene chunks useable.
Graphene cost factors
Getting an understanding of how graphene is produced is crucial to understanding graphene cost. That’s because the way in which graphene is made relates to how much it ultimately costs.
As Graphenea explains in another article, graphene cost is linked to graphene quality. As an example, it points to graphene oxide, which is inexpensive. While it can be used for advanced composite and biotechnology applications, it can’t be used in batteries, flexible touch screens and “other advanced opto-electronic applications.”
In contrast, CVD graphene, which the publication says “offers sufficient quality for almost any graphene application,” is priced based on production volume and the cost of transferring the graphene from the substrate on which it is grown. Essentially what that means is that buying high-quality graphene in large volumes is cheaper than buying a small quantity of it.
The issue there, of course, is that with no commercial applications for graphene yet available, few are looking to buy the material in large quantities. As a result, graphene is for the most part not cheap.
Those involved in the graphene space hope that ultimately commercial applications for the material will be developed, spurring advances that will make mass production of the material a reality.
Case in point — according to a Visual Capitalist infographic, graphene products have the potential to be used in “next generation electronics,” such as flexible and foldable screens, enhanced batteries and “lightning speed” computers. Graphene coating in paint could also be used for end deterioration of ships and cars, fuel-efficient cars and faster and lighter aircraft, to name a few. Overall there’s no shortage of what graphene products have the potential to do, making the space incredibly exciting.
And the future of graphene is growing, literally. MIT announced in April 2018 that researchers have developed a new, scalable way to manufacture graphene — by growing it. It’s still in the initial phases of development, but this could be the answer graphene watchers have been waiting for.
Do you believe that graphene will take off soon? What about the graphene cost factor? Share your opinion in the comments below.
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This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2015.
Securities Disclosure: I, Amanda Kay, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.