Are we jumping the gun with graphene?

20 Jan 2014

The world is awash with stories of graphene – it grabs headlines, inspires the imagination and is much-lauded as the ‘material of the future’. Other materials such as stanene and silicene raise their profile in the press by riding on its super-thin, impressively strong shoulders.

But just how close are we to an influx of graphene-riddled gadgets?

Graphene’s diverse properties mean it has huge potential, not just inside high-tech devices. For example, we learnt at the end of last year that one of the first products to be produced by the National Graphene Institute in Manchester will be thinner, stronger condoms. So the financial markets are circling, poised to harvest the promise of a material expected to shape this century. But the National Graphene Institute is not scheduled to even officially open until 2015.

Almost everyone is heavily reliant on technology in their daily lives, and we are used to technology developing quickly – so fast that many are imagining their next tablet or smartphone will be laced with the one-atom-thick, lightning-quick conductor. They may be jumping the gun.

Recently the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) had to issue a warning to investors. Money men and women, ignorant of the state of the science, are being duped by boiler room scams, assured they can make huge profits. But at this stage few are sure exactly how. The manufacture of affordable, high-quality graphene on an industrial scale has yet to be mastered. The FCA’s official statement is:

‘It's very difficult to recoup money if you are investing in graphene.’

But the breakthroughs keep coming. In December, the University of Manchester issued a press release stating that is has managed to create long, structurally sound graphene ribbons that could potentially be used in transistors. The title of this press release was: ‘A new step towards graphene-based electronics’. It is just that – a step. There are many more steps to take before consumers (and investors) reap the rewards of this research.

Impressive and informed commercial endeavours exist of course. Canadian company Lomiko Metals have been working with USA-based Graphene Labs and Stony Brook University (USA) to identify and overcome the obstacles that exist for the industrial production of graphene. They found that producing decent graphene did not just rest on the purity of the graphite from which it is produced, but also its initial crystalline structure.

But here we go again. The same press release from Lomiko Metals discloses that, in another collaboration with Graphene Labs, they have developed a way to infuse graphene nanoplatelets into a polymer. Voila! We can now 3D print a plethora of things endowed with some of the magnificent properties of graphene... but only in a laboratory, for now.

Graphene-enriched materials are not a new idea and are seemingly inevitable. Inks and polymers enhanced with graphene are already available. The condoms of the future, as touted by the press, involve mixing graphene and latex. Now we can also imagine 3D printing polymer-based items in our own home that can conduct electricity. However, graphene remains expensive to produce and manufacturing something so thin on an industrial scale continues to present challenges. Tiny imperfections can have huge ramifications.

In 2012 the University of Manchester and Lancaster University published a paper called ‘A roadmap for graphene’. This suggested that medical applications for graphene may not be realised until 2030 due to the extreme difficulty in producing it to the required quality. Research presses forward as ever but enthusiastic investors should bear this paper in mind if someone tries to convince them that now is the time to invest. We should rein in our imaginations if we find ourselves thinking that an array of clever things supercharged with graphene will imminently burst into our lives. But the chances are we won’t and over-keen, misinformed investors will blast money into potentially fruitless projects because the exalted wonder material is somehow involved. Many will expect magical quick returns when instead this technology generally requires considered, long-term investment to support it. That, at least, is what I would put my money on.

This article is an opinion piece intended to promote discussion and does not reflect the views of IOM3.


Further information

Bill Gates condom challenge 'to be met' by graphene scientists

FCA warns against dubious graphene investments

A new step towards graphene-based electronics

Lomiko’s big crystal future

A roadmap for graphene