Graphene manufacturing: A global lead indicator?
The world of graphene is a fast evolving place but just what is all this activity about? Looking at patents filed is one way, and the most recent analysis of worldwide patents found that there were 25,855 individual patent publications that involve graphene. But this is not the full story, read on to find out more…
The graphene patent analysis sounds impressive (and it is impressive) but it does not tell us everything we need to know. Patents are published some 18 months after the application date. Looking at patent activity as a predictor of the future is a bit like driving a car forward by looking in the rear view mirror.
Scientific publications activity
Much of the work on graphene is being done by universities and associated academic institutions. A large part of the rewards system for academic researchers is the number and quality of the scientific papers they produce. So academic researchers will tend to make public their projects. Finding current work that relates to making graphene is surprisingly difficult, however people are making progress in this area.
A team funded by the University of South Australia looked at the various ways that sheet graphene could be manufactured for use in organic solar cells. This team used data up to June 2016 and found that Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) was the overwhelming method for making graphene in laboratory. They found that while good progress has been made, much more remains to be done to achieve low-cost high-quality manufacture of graphene. Manufacturing high quality graphene is not easy.
Lead and lag indicators
Most measures tell us what has happened. Both patent and scientific publications are by their nature reports of activity in the past. This means they are lag indicators.
What we need is a lead indicator that shows us the direction of travel of graphene manufacturing activity. Lead indicators are harder to find than their lag counterparts.
Global nanotechnology conference content as a lead indicator
To gain an insight I turned to a reliable source of information. Dr Denis Koltsov runs a UK-based consulting firm, focusing on technology and innovation, called BREC Solutions Ltd. He keeps a close watch on developments in nanotechnology in general and graphene in particular.
One of the facets he monitors is the number of conferences that take place around the world. These are planned up to two years in advance. While the exact content becomes vague the further ahead one looks, the broad themes expressed in the conference plans are usually a good guide and this gives an insight into the work being done by graphene researchers around the world.
So, using these broad themes as a metric, what is planned ahead? According to the BREC nanotechnology Newsletter number 55, there are 107 conferences on nanotechnology that feature graphene in some way between August 2017 and March 2019.
Looking at the plans for each conference I classified the content in terms of pure research, applications for graphene, and graphene manufacturing. Some conferences have a mix of all three while others focus on just one theme, usually fundamental research. The results are revealing.
The bulk of the work being reported continues to be fundamental research into the properties of graphene. Applying graphene to solve various problems is the next most common conference theme. Actually making graphene is not being discussed to the same extent. Of the 107 conferences around the world, just four have content that can be associated with manufacturing graphene. Of these four conferences, one is in the UK, one in the USA and two are in China.
It seems that the global graphene research effort is still exploring the fundamental properties of the material, there is yet much to learn. Applications of graphene are possibly driven by patent activity around the world by various universities hoping to make some kind of return on research investment– we will know whether this is the case when the patents are published over the next two years.
Actually making high quality sheet graphene is very hard to do and requires significant amounts of long-term, consistent, funding over years. Most funded work seems to be for much shorter-term projects. However progress is being made, as we revealed in our column last month, by the team at Peking University in China. Perhaps this will stimulate others to build on their work.
This lead indicator reveals we have to wait some time to see global conferences dedicated to the manufacturing of graphene. When this starts to happen we will know that graphene has grown from its teenage years and come of age to fulfil the world changing promise of this wonder material.