Graphene: Emerging signs of commercial impact?
“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):
- Get some graphite and put it in an industrial blender with some water to produce slurry of nano sized graphene flakes.
- 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.
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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.
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 began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a scientist and ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>