Commercializing graphene: A tale of two applications
The previous column explored ways of making graphene as large-scale sheets. However the current state of the art is to manufacture commercially available quantities of graphene as nanoplatelets. This means infinitesimally small pieces of graphene as powders or suspensions/pastes in various liquids. Graphene nanoplatelets are beginning to have commercial applications, to find out more please read on…
Our own analysis at InvestorIntel shows that there are 51 organisations that claim to produce graphene nanoplatelets in commercial quantities. All use graphite as the starting material and break the bulk graphite down with physical, chemical or mechanical processes to produce few layer graphene nanoplatelets. To understand what few layer graphene means, think of graphite as made from tiny stacks of playing cards. Few layer graphene is up to ten layers thick with true graphene being a single layer.
Early work commercializing graphene looked at high tech areas. For example one prime candidate was replacing Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) coatings for phone touch screens. It is the material that makes touch screens transparent and conductive. However indium is expensive and scarce and the coating is brittle, it will not bend. Future touch screens need to use more readily available materials and also be flexible, allowing designers to create lighter better products.
A four year study involving Professor Jonathan Coleman looked in to replacing ITO with graphene and other substitutes. They ended up finding that coating a network of silver nanowires was a technically better solution for producing flexible, transparent and conductive touch screens than graphene.
Flexible touchscreens will appear on the market, however their ability to flex will be due to a silver lining rather than graphene. The road to commercialization is not always easy and straightforward.
Progress is being made with a more practical approach. Graphene, as you will know, is made of carbon. So a natural commercial path was to look for products containing carbon and see if substituting graphene could confer value adding performance improvements.
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Our second example is rubber tyres. The natural colour of rubber is white; tyres have a different appearance because they contain carbon black that improves the wear resistance. Graphene was thought to be an ideal substitute for some of the carbon black because it is 200 times stronger than steel.
Substituting some of the carbon black in rubber did indeed make tyres more durable, but with a subtle difference. When tyres are in use they wear because they get hot. This causes layers of rubber to shred away and the tyre wears out layer by layer. Adding graphene helps the rubber conduct heat away faster and the effect is that the tyres last two to three times longer.
Bicycle tyre manufacturer Vittoria teamed up with Italian graphene manufacturer Directa Plus and now includes graphene in its high performance tyres. They claim the tyres have better grip and last longer.
This means over a 50km bike race these high performance tyres can give a 32 second advantage. In a race where five to ten seconds can make the difference between winning and losing this is a compelling benefit that customers will buy.
These are just two stories from the emerging commercialization of graphene. We plan to explore more of these in future because graphene is starting to find applications from the mundane to the magnificent.
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>