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. 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 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 production
As mentioned, graphene has a short history and was first produced in 2004 using the Scotch tape method described above; it 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.
So far, however, scientists around the world are still working on new ways to mass produce graphene material. In January 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.
Interest in tackling the issue is widespread. In April 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.
In recent years, various companies have also stepped into the space with their own processes. One example is First Graphene (ASX:FGR), 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.
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 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 several other places too. Archer Materials (ASX:AXE) is working to commercialize its graphene biosensor technology for use in medtech and the detection of diseases. The company 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. Most recently, the company has initiated a research program to test the use of PureGRAPH in improving the performance of a range of natural rubber products.
The outlook moving forward
Looking ahead in the space, IDTechEx Research projects that the industry will reach production of 3,800 tonnes annually 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, respectively.
Research and Markets says that the graphene market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40 percent between 2018 and 2026. In its opinion, rising demand for printed electronics will be one of the driving forces for the sector.
For its part, Grand View Research believes that the market size of graphene will be US$1.08 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 38.7 percent, due in large part to the material’s wide range of applications including energy storage, radio-frequency identification, composites and sensors.
“Rise in awareness regarding superior characteristics of graphene, such as excellent electrical conductivity and heat resistance is expected to aid the growth,” states the research firm.
While demand for consumer electronics in emerging economies in the Asia Pacific region is a primary driver of this growth, North America represents the largest market share based on advancements in electronics-manufacturing capabilities.
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.