Widely regarded as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, many investors are still asking, “What is graphene?” Here’s a brief answer.
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 resulting material was a crystalline allotrope of carbon, a characteristic graphene shares with diamonds and graphite. 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 the product’s composition doesn’t explain why so many people are excited about it. To give investors a better idea of the promise graphene holds — in terms of both applications and profit potential — we’ve put together a brief overview of the basics, including production, uses and its future. Together, they are a start to answering the question, “What is graphene?”
A short history of graphene
As mentioned, graphene has a short history and was first produced in 2004 using the Scotch tape method described above; this is now 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 the 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 flake 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,” according to the Graphene Flagship.
In recent years, scientists around the world have been working on new ways to mass produce graphene material, and interest in tackling the issue is widespread. In 2017, Kansas State University physicists received a patent for the production of graphene using three elements: a spark plug, oxygen and hydrocarbon gas. This method is said to aid in the mass production of graphene at a rapid pace.
In 2018, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described its own way of mass producing graphene material using a roll-to-roll approach, a common method for manufacturing thin foils. The engineers then used chemical vapor deposition by heating foil and exposing it to a combination of carbon and other gases. Their hope was to help provide a path to commercialization.
More recently, researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Birmingham demonstrated a new technique for customizable large-scale production of high-quality graphene that allows for real-time monitoring. They are working with industrial partners, and their process could be used to produce 2D materials — including components required in electronic devices, photovoltaics and batteries — using sustainable solvents rather than toxic chemicals.
Various private and publicly listed companies have also stepped into the space with their own processes. One example is First Graphene (ASX:FGR,OTCQB:FGPHF), which uses the electrochemical exfoliation direct method to produce graphene at its custom-built production plant in Western Australia. It is one of the largest graphene facilities in the world. In the UK, the company is a Tier 1 partner at the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Center in Manchester.
G6 Materials (TSXV:GGG,OTCQB:GPHBF) has developed a patent-pending technology for the preparation and separation of atomic-thin graphene platelets, allowing for the low-cost and large-scale production of high-grade graphene. G6 Materials’ technology has a variety of applications in sectors such as cryptocurrency mining, automotive, construction, green energy and fiber composites.
For its part, Zen Graphene Solutions (TSXV:ZEN,OTC Pink:ZENYF) began engineering processes not long ago for the manufacturing of pure graphene made with materials sourced from its Albany graphite property in Ontario, Canada. Meanwhile, GrapheneCA, a commercial-scale graphene producer and a developer of graphene-based technology, recently announced that it is developing a graphene-based coating with anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.
These of course are only a few examples of the institutions and companies that are trying to make mass production of the material an affordable reality.
A growing base of 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 it is capable of makes it easy to see why.
As the Guardian explains, graphene’s impressive list of characteristics includes being a better thermal conductivity than copper, impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel — but six times lighter — and “almost perfectly transparent, since it only absorbs 2 percent of light.” Further, “chemical components can be added to its surface to alter its properties.”
The University of Manchester states that because of those properties, graphene is making inroads in many industries, such as transport, solar cells, 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 pure carbon material may be able to double the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries, which have risen to the fore due to Tesla’s (NASDAQ:TSLA) activities.
On a smaller scale, Samsung (KRX:005930) has been working on a graphene battery since 2017 to power its phones. In fact, market watchers thought the company’s flagship 2019 phone, the Galaxy S10, would have a graphene battery — although ultimately that did not happen.
Since then, Samsung has announced another scientific breakthrough called amorphous boron nitride, which is composed of a single layer of atoms that are liquid-like in their molecule structure. This 2D material may help in the production of graphene wafers.
Another potential application is in transparent conductive films, and graphene use has been explored in other places too. Archer Materials (ASX:AXE,OTC Pink:ARRXF) is working to commercialize its graphene biosensor technology for use in medtech and the detection of diseases. It recently filed an international patent application to protect the intellectual property rights for its graphene-based technology.
Meanwhile, First Graphene has had success in incorporating its PureGRAPH graphene powder into a range of materials, including polyurethane, thermoplastics and glass composites. In mid-2021, the company launched a new masterbatch product, PureGRAPH MB-LDPE, which is designed to be blended with a range of thermoplastic materials to enhance their mechanical and thermal properties.
There is also cutting-edge research underway to replace silicone with graphene in microchips to increase computational power while decreasing microchip size, a must for technological advancements.
The outlook for graphene
Looking ahead in the space, IDTechEx Research projects that the industry will grow from less than US$100 million in 2020 to reach an impressive US$700 million by 2031.
“Since graphene is still largely an additive material, this means that we will find graphene, of different types, in numerous volume applications in the years to come,” explains the report. “This success, it is worth remembering, will not have come overnight but will have been the results of almost two decades of steadfast global research and commercialization efforts.”
Allied Market Research expects the graphene market to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40.2 percent between 2020 and 2027 to reach US$876.8 million. In its opinion, rising demand for graphene as a catalyst in the chemical industry will be one of the sector’s driving forces.
For its part, Research and Markets is more bullish, projecting that the market size for graphene will hit US$1.5 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 19 percent from 2020. The firm believes that this increase will be due in large part to the material’s wide range of applications, including in the automotive and transportation, aerospace, electronics and construction industries.
The firm points to monolayer graphene as the fastest-growing type of graphene, with applications in quantum computing, pressure sensors, touch sensors, transistors, nanoelcmechanical systems, optoelectronics, aerospace components and electronic components, among others.
In terms of the fastest-growing application of graphene, energy storage and harvesting reigns supreme. “Graphene is used in energy generation and storage of capacitors, batteries, and also in grid applications for strong wind or solar power,” as per the report’s authors.
Finally, electronics represents the quickest-growing end-use industry for graphene — specifically the wearable technology segment, where graphene is used in “optical electronics to create flexible and wearable newspaper-like smartphones that can be worn on the wrist, tablet, and a rolled-up newspaper.”
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2015.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: G6 Materials is a client of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.