EDITOR: | June 5th, 2015 | 14 Comments

Graphene: Emerging signs of commercial impact?

| June 05, 2015 | 14 Comments

28 COPA DEL REY AUDI MAPFRE“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”

So said Nobel Laureate Nils Bohr.  Well, I’m not a Nobel Prize winner (and no desire to be one either) so I’ll be brave and have a go at peeking into the near future for a specific area.

Those of you who have read my previous columns will know that I’m a little sceptical of some of the claims for graphene applications because it is rather hard to make the large-scale sheets of the stuff for the electronic devices of the future (click here).

Dr. Ian Flint writes an excellent column on this site and his piece on the market for graphene got me thinking about the commercial impact of graphene…

Manufacturing methods haven’t yet caught up with the many desirable applications for this new material. Graphene is made in one of 2 ways (I’ll brutally simplify the technology):

  1. Get some graphite and put it in an industrial blender with some water to produce slurry of nano sized graphene flakes.
  2. Get a piece of copper and expose it to very low pressure, very hot methane for a while and a single layer of graphene forms on the surface.

We have these two ways of making graphene; one creates a slurry, the other leaves a layer stuck on to copper, which is tricky to remove. So we’ll not see large-scale sheet graphene for a while.

So, given that the supply chain is lacking in actually making the stuff, it looks like commercial applications for graphene are in the distant future. Or are they…?

I keep an eye on graphene discoveries, and a few days ago researchers at MIT announced a rather interesting discovery. They had been coating copper with graphene and watching what happened when steam comes into contact with a cold copper pipe.  It turns out that water condenses on the pipe as droplets that rapidly build and then fall off. Not surprising you might think. Except that what normally happens on untreated copper is that a water film builds up and drops fall off from this film. The water film layer insulates the pipe to a certain extent making heat transfer less efficient.

Copper pipes are used in heat exchangers in power plants. Anything that increases heat exchange also improves the efficiency of the power generation process, which means improved profits. This sounds like a rather good sales benefit that could form the basis for a niche graphene application market.

And that could have been the end of this column, except I got thinking a bit more…

I liked the MIT approach, as they were not troubled with having to remove the graphene layer, they wanted it stuck on the copper. They were also not troubled by the quality of the graphene. A perfectly continuous layer of 6 membered rings is important for the next generation of high performance electronics, but not for the more mundane job of condensation.

The graphene works so well as a coating because it is super-hydrophobic (it repels water really well) I remembered reading an article on the properties of coatings like these when I was researching a book on the future of transport fuels (click here to access).

Super-hydrophobic coatings are rather important for dramatic reductions in the drag of ships.  The paper I read found that drag could be reduced by 38.5% in the lab. That’s a big difference. Copper is an old friend of ship designers; they used it as an anti fouling coating for wooden ships as far back as the 17th century. The term ‘copper bottomed’ has entered common use to describe a mark of high quality.

By this point you’ll be ahead of me…

We have a super-hydrophobic coating of graphene that can be formed on copper.  Copper is a material well used to coating the hulls of ships.  Super-hydrophobic coatings have already been shown to have remarkable drag reducing effects.  Reduce the drag on ships and you improve their speed and fuel efficiency. Looks like a market opportunity to me, probably starting with the high performance yacht racing community, then on to the military and larger merchant shipping.

But wait…

Can we make graphene on the large scales needed?

Current technologies can only form graphene on small areas of copper. I know because I’ve met some of the people involved in making graphene to discuss methane furnace designs.

Well, the small-scale lab processes are trying to make sheets of high quality continuous layers of graphene for the electronics industry. If you relax that attention to detail and are happy with a layer with more defects it will still be useful as a super-hydrophobic coating and much easier to scale up.

This makes the production of larger scale graphene coated sheets a far easier engineering challenge. If you want to discuss the designs, I’ve already worked out the basics, drop me a line.

So it looks like the production methods are finally beginning to line up with market opportunities. That’s why I think there are emerging signs of a commercial impact.


Adrian Nixon is a Senior Editor at InvestorIntel. He began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>

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  • Allan Wing

    I’m not sure your column is to be taken seriously or not. Seems you’ve not talked to many who claim to be making graphene. Grafoid, a Canadian company has been doing this for years, discovered the one step method at the University of Singapore.

    June 6, 2015 - 5:48 AM

    • Tracy Weslosky


      We are very fond of Adrian Nixon’s impressive experience and are thrilled that he is writing for us. So yes, not only should he be taken seriously, but treated with respect.

      As for what Grafoid is doing, I was on their site yesterday and was surprised at how little information is in their PPT. The reason I was looking was that Talga’s CEO Mark Thompson was in my office from Perth, and he was showing me what they were doing with graphene — and I was interested to see what Grafoid has announced lately.

      This is a very top secret industry, and the prize will be literally BILLIONS to whomever can process commercial level graphene — and QUANTITY at a COST EFFECTIVE price.

      Again, we are honored to have Mr. Nixon as part of our editorial community. Thank you.

      June 6, 2015 - 2:12 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hello Allan, Thanks for your comment. You are free to take me seriously or not. That is perfectly ok with me. If you read my column carefully you’ll see I’m focussing on large scale areas of graphene made by the CVD method. The other method is exfoliation which is, as you quite rightly point out, being used by Grafoid to make graphene nano flakes. These nano flakes are being sold in kilogram quantities to a variety of institutions and certainly have interesting applications which are currently being explored. As far as I’m aware no-one has got these flakes to join up again to take full advantage of the amazing properties of graphene. However I’m perfectly open to being corrected on this and would be fascinated to learn from you. Adrian

    June 6, 2015 - 12:57 PM

  • michael

    carbon science inc has announced a process to develop graphene with natural gas in an economical way?? May 11, 2015

    June 7, 2015 - 11:43 AM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hi Michael, Carbon Science has indeed announced a graphene process. The details are scarce at the moment, however it is a Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) process. This means they are using methane and a catalyst surface (most probably a transition metal). So far so good. What they seem reticent about is how to get the graphene layer off the catalyst surface after it has formed. That’s the tricky bit. Part of the discussions I’ve been having with a team based at Manchester University (UK) were how to do just this. [we are covered by an NDA so I cannot go into the details] Maybe someone in the Carbon Science lab reads this column and can tell us their approach to doing this.

    June 7, 2015 - 2:16 PM

  • Allan Wing

    Hello Adrian
    I attended the AGM for Grafoid this morning and know different.
    Much of what I heard was confidential to shareholders but I suggest you write Grafoid to find out more. I can say Grafoid is growing graphene in large sheets on aluminum and glass.

    June 9, 2015 - 5:47 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hello Allan,
    Thank you very much for that information. I’ll certainly write to Grafoid and ask them if they can tell me their progress. Looking at their product development portfolio I’d guess that that they are taking graphite and deriving graphene nano-flakes to produce their MesoGraf product. This suspension of graphene flakes could be spread onto a surface such as glass or aluminium and dried to create a layer. If they are growing graphene on glass and aluminium this will be quite different as it would create a coherent layer of graphene on different substrate layers and I’ll be seriously impressed.

    June 10, 2015 - 11:11 AM

  • the_ignored

    I have learned to hold in reserve any trust in any poster who is only interested in one single topic.

    June 12, 2015 - 7:17 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hello ‘the_ignored’ I certainly agree that trust is not to be given easily, especially in this virtual world. Trust takes time and if you are patient you’ll find that I’ll gradually reveal other interests through this column, graphene being only one specific strand that is currently attracting my attention.

    June 13, 2015 - 5:15 PM

  • the_ignored

    Sorry. I was talking about Allan! He only seems to post when he’s pushing “Grafoid”!

    June 13, 2015 - 8:31 PM

  • the_ignored

    I do thank you for your polite response in regards to what looked like from your view, to be a large shot at you!

    June 13, 2015 - 8:33 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hello ‘the_ignored’ I thank you in return for your polite candour.
    On the subject of Grafoid, I’ve taken Allan’s steer and contacted them asking them if they are growing a continuous graphene layer or spreading a suspension of nano flakes onto a surface then drying it. As you’ll realise these are two quite different approaches with differing end results. I’ve not heard back from Grafoid yet, when I do I’ll let you know.
    I’ve one more column to write on the topic of graphene then I’ll turn my attention to other areas. Are you interested in any specific topics? I cannot promise to be informed on everything, however if your interests coincide with mine I’ll do my best to put digital pen to paper in a mutually interesting direction. Adrian

    June 14, 2015 - 3:21 AM

  • the_ignored

    Hello, Mr. Nixon:

    Sorry for the long wait for my response. I’m not that big of an investor so I don’t hang around here much.

    One other topic that I heard about, though I hope that it’s an exaggeration, is about investment in industries that deal with water procurement and filtration.

    A “friend” gave me a rather frightening link about how various corporations are lining up to take advantage of what’s left of the clean water in the world.

    If the article that my “friend” gave me was true, it’d be a really bad sign that something so basic as water would be such an investment opportunity.

    What I found on my own was this:

    Still foreboding, but since water is not one of the topics of this site, I’ll not speak of it again.

    More in relevance that I heard about, was the element Thorium, for use in “cleaner” nuclear reactors.

    June 22, 2015 - 12:08 AM

  • 20 Things you need to know about Graphene | InvestorIntel

    […] is super-hydrophobic, it repels water so it could be used as a coating to make ships go faster, or improve the […]

    July 16, 2015 - 9:44 AM

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