The commercialisation of graphene

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2018

Liam Critchley* examines in the graphene industry since 2017, and the paths towards commercialisation.

2017 saw a change in the graphene industry with the founding of the National Graphene Association (NGA) in the USA. While a lot of government money had been pumped into the driving force behind fundamental research in universities and government laboratories, the USA had been commercialising graphene technologies by funding international industry developments. The NGA arranged this, bringing together all the world leaders in graphene with the aim of pushing forward its commercialisation, linking investors and venture capitalists with companies in the graphene space, and providing an environment where ideas could develop.

Despite its young age, the NGA has achieved a lot over the last year. Many of the CEOs and leading players within the graphene industry are a part of their international advisory board, and the group has already hosted two key industry events to invite players to discuss how to move the industry forward in the USA. Taking the form of industry-led conferences, these events always have a pre-conference day where the advisory board and key stakeholders to discuss challenges such as graphene standards, safety, how the USA take the needs of the industry to central government, and encouraging end-user companies to use graphene in their products.

So, if we compartmentalise the key issues, it is clear to see how much the industry has grown in 12 months.

The concept of graphene has changed in 12 months

The industry’s perception of graphene has also transformed over this period. Brought to light recently by James Baker, CEO of the National Graphene Institute and Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre, UK, the term now used is graphenes. This is a significant concept shift, because 12 months ago people would refer to CVD graphene, graphene oxide, nanoplatelets and even graphitic nanoplatelets – which are not technically graphene – as simply graphene.
This brought about no end of confusion and has contributed to production being questioned over the years, as it has been hard to deduce what graphene is from a product perspective.

What are the graphenes?

Graphenes is the collective name for any graphene product that is under 10 layers in size, be it CVD graphene, nanoplatelets or an oxidised form. It also extends out to other materials within the 2D family such as hexagonal boron nitride. It is a term and collective name that has helped clarify what types of products people are offering within the industry, because all products that fall within graphenes are now accepted products – something that wasn’t the case when trying to fixate graphene as a single entity. The 10-layer cut-off point has been put in place because above this number the products and their properties are more reminiscent of graphite than of graphene, many of which are technically graphitic nanoplatelets.

Recent findings show that it is not the type of graphene, which is important for many applications, but how you use it. Graphene needs to be functionalised before it can be used as an additive in any composite or other matrix, and this is independent of its type, degree of oxidation or number of layers. Therefore, there is not as much of a dependence on the number of layers as people initially thought, and the properties of functionalised graphene are notably different to all types of non-functionalised graphene, which makes it harder to present a standard form of graphene when the usable functionalised graphene shows different properties to any manufactured raw product.

The graphene market boom

The adoption of graphene into commercial end-user products is perhaps the biggest industry advancement within the last 12 months, and it is an important one. In 2017, many people were discussing potential applications, but the actual output was mainly academic, barring two or three niche products. In 2018, it is a completely different story. There are now so many commercially available products that use graphene, including textiles, clothing and shoes, absorbent materials for oil spills, heat dissipation materials, biochemical sensors, personal protective equipment, and automotive parts. The collaboration between Ford and XG Sciences to use graphene in some of Ford’s automotive parts was announced in October 2018. This is a big step forward and falls in line with other big graphene developments around the world, including the recent adoption of China-based producer The Sixth Element’s graphene by electronics manufacturer Huawei as a heat management tool in their new mobile phones.

The exponential increase in the use of graphene in real-world products has boosted confidence in graphene, production and the ability to implement graphene for an added value – market confidence has increased considerably and is now at the point where multinational companies are starting to take notice. It is a completely different scenario from 12 months ago, when many industry people were still trying to get the big corporates on board. As it turns out, showcasing the potential for added value without adding a lot of cost to the product, because only a small weight percentage is needed, has been the most effective route. It is true that some applications are not yet ready for the adoption of graphene, but if the number of products that use graphene grows at the current rate over the next few years there’s a strong chance that most of the general public will possess a product containing graphene.

The first adoption of standards

The first adoption of graphene standards was realised in September 2017, in the form of an ISO terminology standard for the different forms of graphene and is the result of many years of work from different parties in and on the fringes of the industry. While only a small gain, it is an important one as it helps to better define which of the graphenes each company is producing. Physical and measurement standards take a lot of time to implement. Every material has this same process, so graphene is not alone in this regard, but the first terminology standards has brought about a greater degree of clarity and has helped increase the market confidence in graphene products.

A new research centre

Within the last 12 months, the USA has seen the creation of a Centre for Graphene Research and Innovation dedicated to graphene and other 2D materials. Based out of the University of Mississippi, it works closely with the NGA and many of the key figures in the centre sit on the advisory board, which has helped foster cross-collaborative efforts between the two. If you beyond the USA, there are many world-leading centres dedicated to graphene, such as the National Graphene Institute in the UK, and the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials in Singapore, and the hope is that the Mississippi centre will also become a renowned pioneer.

Work is still to be done

One of the key arms of the NGA is to lobby the USA government for funding. One of the other key aims is work with both end-user consumer markets and graphene production companies to provide an environment where investors can be paired with the car companies, and for graphene to be adopted by the end-user companies. On these aspects, there is still work to be done. While NGA representatives are performing a lot of lobbying, changing views within a political landscape is challenging and takes time.

On the investor front, many potential investors want a short return on their money. Whereas investing in graphene is a long game, and so has put some people off. Investors are also wary after the failings of carbon nanotubes – hyped up as a wonder material, and causing a lot of money to be put into them, only to find that companies couldn’t make them work due to issues on dispersion and aligning.

While some of these problem have been resolved and it is now possible to use carbon nanotubes effectively, which has brought about a small resurgence in their use, the previous failings and loss of money has stuck with investors, making them more cautious about graphene. However, fundamental work is being done by the NGA to pair investors with start-ups to hopefully increase private investment within the graphene industry.

Looking to the future

The global graphene industry has never looked better. While the USA still has some catching up to do in terms of funding commercialisation, compared with the UK, Europe, China and other parts of Asia, it is on the right track. Products are coming out that are using graphene produced in the USA and new collaborations are emerging all the time. The NGA representatives in Washington are still lobbying for graphene and this last year has seen political figures, such as the Governor of Texas, developing and interest in the material. The graphene industry has moved past its initial hype and is now at a tipping point. Confidence in graphene products is currently high, and if this tipping point can be nudged in the right direction, we could soon see widespread commercial adoption of graphene like never before.

*Liam Critchley is a chemistry and nanotechnology writer, NGA advisory board member and science communications officer at the Nanotechnologies Industries Association.