Graphene is just one atom thick, but it’s poised to cast a wide shadow over the future of business. Some 200 times stronger than steel yet lighter than paper and more flexible than a contortionist, graphene is hailed as a miracle material with the potential to revolutionize products and processes across industries from consumer electronics to biomedicine.
First isolated in 2004 by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won a Nobel Prize for their efforts, graphene is essentially a crystalline carbon allotrope with two-dimensional properties. Its atoms are packed in a hexagonal pattern that resembles chicken wire, and it’s so thin, it’s virtually transparent. The unique structure translates to thermal, electrical and magnetic properties no other material can match, and the commercial applications are almost limitless. For example, graphene’s flexibility could lead to breakthroughs in wearable devices, and its feather-light weight could yield more streamlined, fuel-efficient aircraft. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has even donated $100,000 to the University of Manchester to help fund development of graphene-based condoms.
“Graphene has so much potential for use in many different businesses and many different areas,” says Elena Polyakova, CEO of Long Island, N.Y.-based Graphene Laboratories, whose Graphene Supermarket supplies nanocarbon and graphene products to more than 7,000 enterprise and academic customers. “It can replace many materials that are currently on the market.”
Graphene R&D far eclipses commercial activity, at least for now. Technology consultancy Cambridge IP states that developers and manufacturers have filed 13,000 graphene-related patents in the past five years alone, and in late 2013 the European Commission launched a billion-euro, 10-year graphene research initiative that brings together academic institutions and industrial groups from 17 nations.
An Allied Market Research forecast says the graphene market will reach $149.1 million worldwide by the end of the decade, experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 44 percent between 2014 and 2020, thanks largely to surging interest from the electronics and automotive sectors. Case in point: In April, Samsung Electronics, working with South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University, announced a graphene synthesis method that promises to speed the material’s commercialization, touting its potential for use in flexible displays and other cutting-edge products. IBM has also unveiled a graphene-based integrated electronic circuit designed to boost wireless data transmission speeds.
But just because graphene is a miracle doesn’t mean it’s perfect. For starters, it lacks the “band gap” present in other semiconductor materials, meaning its conductivity can’t be switched on and off. Possible solutions include building in artificial breaks to open and close circuits or altering graphene’s core makeup with chemical additives. The problem is further compounded by high manufacturing costs and quality-control issues that limit the volume of defect-free graphene that’s available to researchers.
Startups like Ottawa, Ontario-based Grafoid, a graphene-focused business development firm, are tackling the production challenge head-on. Grafoid has invested in the patent-pending MesoGraf process, which generates pristine graphene from raw graphite ore, a cost-effective, single-step production method that eliminates harsh chemicals that could hamper the material’s fundamental properties.
Such processes have the advantage of being better for the planet. In fact, graphene’s low environmental impact may turn out to be its true legacy. Researchers at Rice University have proved that adding graphene oxide to water-based drilling fluids can improve oil extraction by minimizing potential leakage. Graphene may even replace some metals and other natural resources mined for manufacturing, says Gordon Chiu, founder, president and CTO of Grafoid and co-inventor of MesoGraf.
“Imagine taking something that was 100 percent oil-dependent and making it only 50 percent oil-dependent by mixing in graphene. Not only is the product lighter and stronger, but it’s also safer for the environment,” Chiu says. “I’ve always believed in new materials that can change the way we do things. Graphene has the ability to fundamentally impact how we operate as a species while still being technologically advanced.”