I wrote this blog article for IDTechEx in March 2017.
Graphene needs little introduction within the context of the current innovation landscape. In just over a decade, it has achieved considerable attention due to its potential to revolutionise the way we think, design and manufacture in a host of areas – from faster and more robust racing cars to lighter aircraft, from rust-free paint to super-thin heaters, from unbreakable mobile phones to breaking-the-mold solutions in medical science.
Boasting a significant private investment, as well as substantial public funds by the likes of the European Union who invested $1.3 billion in ‘The Graphene Flagship’ (1) and the UK Government who provided £235 million ($353 million) for a national graphene research center (2), graphene is expected to become to the 21st century, what plastics were to the 20th.
At the product level, research and development effort expended on graphene is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars per annum (3). However, many of the initial graphene products available on the market are made principally from more traditional materials and incorporate a limited quantity of graphene. This will, of course, gradually change over the coming years as graphene prototypes pass through strict industry design and development validation and verification stages. Upon this progression over the next few years, the graphene industry is predicted to reach many billions of dollars per year (3).
While still largely in a prototyping phase, graphene infused polymers, coatings, paints, electronic inks, rubbers, latex and concrete applications are already offering much faster, better and quicker solutions to existing products across industries. One area that really stands out and has the potential to offer a long-term industrial solution is that of composites. For example, the incorporation of graphene in composite shells offers not only a stronger and stiffer solution, but it can also conduct heat away from high temperature regions (the engine bay for example). Moreover, graphene composites are already paving the way to the production of lighter planes by an estimated 3700 kilos on average, and in the process significantly contributing to CO2 reductions in the atmosphere. Adding graphene to plastics also leads to an alteration in the thermal conductivity of the plastics, making them feel more like metal and maintaining the ‘premium’ feel that users associate with metal parts above the more inferior feel of plastics. Among many other possibilities, graphene also improves the strength and weight of the carbon fibers used to manufacture sports equipment, from skis to tennis rackets to bicycle frames and helmets.
The exciting thing about graphene is that it is a hugely versatile material that is not just confined to the bounds of existing product optimisation. For example, leading edge organisations, such as teams in Formula 1, are striving to make use of it to achieve a step change in their competitiveness. Above all the aforementioned products, it will likely stimulate and evolve applications that simply are not immediately visible. In fact, graphene is already giving rise to novel industrial conversion techniques and solutions that can contribute to offsetting the effects of climate change and re-purposing food waste. One example of this involves capturing green house gases from manufacturing flare off processes, such as methane and CO2, and re-purposing them into graphene and other industrially useful gases such as hydrogen and acetylene. Another conversion solution for producing graphene includes conversion of food waste into biogas to act as a feedstock into the graphene production process (4).
Regarding graphene’s realisation in the market, it is worth noting that, unlike what many commentators would want us to believe (e.g. 3), graphene material can already be produced and supplied at a large scale and a competitive price to take our technology to the next level. We should all bear in mind that graphene is a very low density material and only a minuscule amount of it can make a tremendous improvement in any application.
- Graphene Flagship: http://graphene-flagship.eu/
- BBC (2014) “Autumn Statement 2014: Manchester to get £235m science research centre”, 3 December 2014: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-30309451
- Deloitte (2016) “Predictions 2016: Graphene: research now, reap next decade”: https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/tmt-pred16-tech-graphene-research-now-reap-next-decade.html
- EU FP7 PlasCarb Project (2013-2016): http://www.plascarb.eu/