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Graphene: decades of promise

Senior Engagement Manager

When graphene was first discovered in the early 2000s, it was described as having some of the greatest material properties discovered – so why, almost 20 years later , is it not used in our day-to-day lives? 

Graphene was first discovered in 2004, isolated from the (commonly used) graphite. With a Nobel Prize awarded to its discoverers in 2010, the focus has been on commercialising the material as fast as possible. So, what is so special about graphene? Graphene is revolutionary in its thinness – it is the first material discovered to be 2D, with each sheet only one atom thick. This novel property is due to the honeycomb arrangement of its atoms, which enables them to lie flat. The atomic arrangement combined with the chemical bonding results in a very strong , robust material (with tests showing that it is at least 200 times stronger than steel) . It is also lightweight, flexible and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity . The combination of these properties has created a significant amount of hype around the material and yet, despite this and a wave of investment in the space, this ‘wonder material’ is still not widely used.  


Although this leads many to assume that the material is not as revolutionary as initially thought, the challenge that graphene is facing is in fact a similar issue faced by many innovators - moving a technology from the lab into the market. One of the most significant challenges in commercialising graphene is the lack of scalable manufacturing methods for producing high-quality graphene. There are currently two main methods : chemical vapour deposition (CVD) and exfoliation. The former generally produces higher quality graphene but is more expensive and can only produce very small quantities, whilst the latter can produce larger batches at a more cost-competitive price, but with lower and very variable product quality. Both methods are unsatisfactory and have a negative environmental impact; neither method is compatible with mass production, and both are either energy-intensive (due to the high temperatures required ) or require s toxic chemicals.   


This in turn leads to a new issue – until there are large-scale quantities available, there is no motivation for customers to show interest. Yet, for graphene to be commercialised, work must be completed on achieving product - market fit through developing the material for its applications and tailoring the material to fit the needs of the customer . Adding to this challenge, due to the variable nature of existing graphene products and a lack of clarity for customers on the most suitable material type for their application, many have seen poor outcomes, resulting in decreased market confidence.   


Something that could assist in mitigating this issue is industry standards and classifications. Currently, since it is an emerging market, the lack of standardisation means that there is a significant variation in quality between products sold as graphene ( e.g., many products sold have small flakes, reducing electrical conductivity). Without a way for the market to easily assess the quality of the graphene purchased , trust in the product is reduced, potentially setting the graphene market up to fail before it has really begun .       


So , what is the future of graphene and can the challenges it is facing be overcome There are still no concrete predictions for the timeline of widespread graphene adoption so interested parties must manage their expectations whilst further innovation and commercialisation work is carried out. However, given the current awareness within the manufacturing industry of a need for a sustainable transformation, it is a particularly interesting challenge – and it is one that I personally look forward to following.