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 to that, 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.
With that in mind, new methods of graphene production could be changing the pace in which the material is produced. According to the University of Exeter, engineers its Center for Graphene Science have ben working on a less expensive–and faster–method of production.
The new method looks to combine a few of the steps that may be transferred directly to things like plastics or textiles.
“his enables us to create graphene-based devices in their entirety prior to any transfer processes, simplifying very significantly the device fabrication process and potentially opening up the route to the use of a wider range of target substrates,” the report reads. “We demonstrate the capabilities of our technique via the fabrication of a flexible, transparent, graphene/graphene oxide humidity sensor that outperforms a conventional commercial sensor.”
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 came out of the battery space in 2015— 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.
It’s also been suggested that another area of potential graphene applications is in transparent conductive films. According to R&D Magazine, those elements are used in optoelectronic applications that need voltage/current and optical input/out, found in OLED lighting, pholtovoltaics and touch screens.
What is graphene? Future outlook
Looking ahead in the graphene space, IDTechEx Research projects the industry to reach 3,800 tons produced each year by 2027, worth over $300 million.
That said, the research firm expects the industry will remain in a “state of over-capacity” until at least 2021. Industries like energy storage and composites will make up most of the graphene market, IDTechEx Research points out, comprising 25 percent and 40 percent of the sector by 2027, in that order.
Markets and Markets, another research outlet, says the global graphene market should reach roughly $279 million by 2020, with a growth rate of 42.8 percent between 2015 and 2020. Pushing that growth, the firm suggests, is the Asia-Pacific, which is expected to clock in the fastest growth rate in the world.
As such, Markets and Markets states that growth is mostly attached to high economic growth rate, manufacturing industries, low labor costs, and growing graphene-based application patents.
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.
Still–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.
This is an update to an article first published in 2015.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Jocelyn Aspa, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.