What is Graphene?

Graphene Investing
lettered blocks spelling out "graphene" atop a map of Europe

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 in England 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 bonded in different ways. For instance, graphite consists of carbon atoms bonded 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 graphene. To give investors a better idea of the promise graphene holds — in terms of both applications and profit potential — we’ve assembled a brief overview of the basics, including production, uses and its future. Together, they are a start to answering the question, “What is graphene?”

What is the 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, and 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, graphene flake can be created when natural graphite is placed in a solution, and direct chemical synthesis can be used to make “small graphene structures with well-defined geometries."

In recent years, scientists around the world have been working on new ways to mass produce graphene material, and interest in tackling the issue has become 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. 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 — with sustainable solvents rather than toxic chemicals.

Various private and public 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 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 portfolio of patented and 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.

HydroGraph Clean Power (CSE:HG) has a patented synthetic detonated graphene process for producing hydrogen gas for the clean energy sector, and the only synthetic detonated graphene at an industrial scale. The graphene produced via this process has a purity of 99.8 percent and can be used in a variety of applications.

For its part, Zen Graphene Solutions (TSXV:ZEN,OTC Pink:ZENYF) is manufacturing and commercializing nanomaterials, including its award-winning ZenGUARD surgical masks. 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.

What is graphene used for?

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.

Graphene’s impressive characteristics includes being a better thermal conductivity than copper, impermeable to gases, 200 times stronger than steel — but six times lighter — and almost entirely transparent as it only absorbs 2 percent of light. Further, chemical components can be added to graphene's surface to enhance 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 forefront in recent years.

On a smaller scale, Samsung (KRX:005930) has developed a graphene battery to power its phones. The company also made 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 produce graphene wafers.

Another potential application is in transparent conductive films. Additionally, Archer Materials (ASX:AXE,OTC Pink:ARRXF) is working to commercialize its graphene biosensor technology for use in the detection of diseases.

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, which would be an important technological advancement.

What is 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 firm's 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.”

For its part, Grand View Research expects the graphene market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 43.2 percent between 2021 and 2028 to reach US$1.6 billion. In its opinion, rising demand for graphene in the electric vehicle industry will be one of the sector’s driving forces.

Research and Markets is just as bullish, projecting that the market size for graphene will hit US$1.5 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate 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, nanoelectromechanical systems, optoelectronics, aerospace components and electronic components, among others.

In terms of the fastest-growing applications for graphene, energy storage and harvesting reign 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.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Technology for real-time news updates!

Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: HyrdoGraph Clean Power is a client of the Investing News Network. This article is not paid-for content.

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