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. While it is simple to make a small amount of the material — anyone with some Scotch tape and a piece of graphite can do it — it’s 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 layers from graphene.
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 in such processes 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.
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 produced 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 to buy.
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 cares, fuel-efficient cars, faster and lighter aircrafts, to name a few.
Putting it shortly, there’s no shortage of what graphene products have the potential to do–making it one of the most exciting spaces to watch for.
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This is an update to an article originally published in 2015.
Securities Disclosure: I, Charlotte McLeod, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.