Head-to-head: is graphene overhyped?
Since it was first isolated in 2004, the list of possible applications for graphene is constantly growing. Rachel Lawler speaks to two experts about how much our expectations for its future differ from reality.
Graphene isn’t the first carbon nanomaterial to be overhyped. In 1996, the Nobel Prize-winning bucky balls kicked off global interest in nanotechnology but were quickly overtaken by the even more wonderful carbon nanotubes. The graphene tennis racket wielded by Maria Sharapova is simply a decade-old echo of Babolat’s 2004 carbon nanotube model. But will the current crop of companies producing graphene meet the same fate as those producing bucky balls or nanotubes?
In the initial stage of excitement about a wonder material, the rulebook goes flying out the window. The fear of missing out creates a global race to develop production capacity for the ‘new gold’ and patent untested applications. This happens at companies large and small in response to claims that graphene, for example, is going to make stretchable smartphones and provide unlimited clean water. This creates an entire ecosystem of conferences, industry associations and consultants who stand to benefit from increased interest in graphene, reinforcing the hype.
At Cientifica Plc, our involvement with graphene must meet four basic criteria. Firstly, is there evidence of real market pull? Secondly, I like to see clear channels to market. The third criterion is how revolutionary the product is. If it is 10% better than something already on the market then it is of little interest. For us to take the risk of investing time and money in a start-up it has to be something that can change an industry or enable a new market. The last thing I worry about is the technology itself.
While there is much talk about the need to scaleup production of graphene, I don’t see this as a major issue. With 10 grams of graphene being sufficient to coat three football fields, capacity is less of a problem than is often reported. Anybody investing in significant capacity without validation of the market is financially on very shaky ground.
Anyone seduced by the hype surrounding graphene would probably be disappointed by the technology it is currently used in. At Cientifica Plc we have no ambition to develop Terahertz electronics or stretchy phones – we’re looking for products that simply wouldn’t exist without graphene. If you take a rational view of what this material can do and over what time scale, there is plenty to get excited about. But if your expectations are based solely on media hype then you will be sorely disappointed.
There is no denying that if nano-carbon, graphene and the wider family of two-dimensional materials live up to their billing, the impact on the construction industry will be immense.
Base data for nanomaterials is often derived from experiments undertaken at molecular level in the laboratory. These results are then extrapolated to form idealised, scaled-up theoretical properties and a bit of imaginative benchmarking is added to create popular soundbites such as – ‘graphene films strong enough to repel charging elephants’. While this is not untrue, when you read the small print you realise that these comparisons are distortions of reality.
To differentiate between what is probable and what is aspirational, we should first examine the current state of play. All of the leading science universities are researching nanomaterials and a number have gone a step further and started up companies. They are joined by many small entrepreneurial organisations looking to develop new techniques. The goal is to take what has been learnt in the laboratory and functionalise it for small pilot plant production. The USA, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Russia, France, South Korea and China have all joined the rush into the patent office. Whether the UK has the stamina to keep up with the pace or if those currently behind us will overtake, is yet to be seen.
But is this enthusiasm creating results? There are some significant stumbling blocks. Nanomaterials require large amounts of energy to produce and they are relatively slow to create. Manufacturing costs are significant and the purity (and quality) drops off as quantity increases. There are also some health hazards associated with nanomaterials.
The mainstream use of these materials in construction is at least a decade away. Despite this, innovation is happening. Additives for concrete to increase strength or allow curing in extreme weather conditions is in development, as are improved heat transfer alloys, smaller copper cables and windows that double as display screens. The future is exciting. Although graphene is overhyped, the possibilities it holds are also very real.
What do you think?
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