Development accelerates in the graphene technologies
Back in 2004, two Russian scientists at the UK’s University of Manchester managed to produce the world’s first two-dimensional material by isolating a single layer of graphite atoms, something researchers had been attempting to achieve since the 70s, which eventually earned the Manchester-based team a Nobel prize in 2010. While numerous developments, such as carbon nanotubes, have arisen from the original research, useful and genuinely disruptive graphene-based innovations have so far been elusive due to the exorbitant cost of producing the material.
Over the last year, however, several discoveries have convinced me that a period of considerable adoption of graphene-based technologies is upon us. The sheer number of players in the space has led to an R&D boom, and emerging innovations range from power generation & storage to advanced military and aerospace applications, and here we consider some of the products which could reasonably provide exposure to graphene’s long awaited growth curve, which some expect to top $1bn by 2025.
This has been an area of significant development and associated hype for decades, but graphene promises to revolutionise the sector yet again as a result of its unparalleled properties. Of all known materials, it’s the thinnest, strongest and lightest, with the best electrical and thermal conductivity properties. This has understandably driven much research in the area, and towards the end of 2017 some prospective battery components were significantly enhanced with graphene.
The result is batteries that are light, durable and suitable for high capacity energy storage, with some devices just coming to market promising to halve charge times. This will be a critical development in both mobile technology and electric vehicles; the latter remains in relatively early stages of development, and so any viable fundamental improvement is likely to be adopted; as for the former, the fact that graphene is also extremely flexible, water repellent, non-toxic and somewhat anti-bacterial finally opens the door for real wearable tech, and even subdermal implants.
Researchers in Barcelona this year demonstrated that graphene is capable of generating electric current when exposed to photons of light. In most existing materials, one photon produces one electron, but graphene is able to produce multiple electrons from every photon it absorbs. Nonetheless, in its current form, graphene suffers from low absorption, meaning that it is still one step away from being the PV material of the future. However, the very same researchers have committed to tackling this issue, convinced by their previous success that they are able to remove this barrier in due course.
Watch out for PV companies moving into graphene-based systems in the next couple of years; given that solar PV was the fastest growing renewables segment in 2016, and capacity growth is expected to be substantially higher than any other renewable technology through 2022, the successful application of graphene in this area would likely result in the birth of an entirely new industry. On a slightly related note, a graphene construction was recently shown to catalyze carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbon monoxide (CO), which can then be sold on as a commodity, in a process that researchers have termed “reverse photosynthesis”, potentially allowing for effective removal of CO2 from the atmosphere; a sort of atmospheric homeostasis machine.
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The very same Barcelona-based researchers mentioned above are currently engaged in developing the fifth generation of mobile data networks, claiming that graphene is the material that will make this possible. The team recently exhibited a prototype of a graphene-based integrated transceiver that could significantly reduce the power consumption of data centers, shrink their footprint, and increase their bandwidth. As a result, associated companies, such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Alcatel, began to support to the team’s research via the EU’s billion dollar research effort: Graphene Flagship.
This is an ongoing issue with the planned rollout of the 5G telecoms standard. Current technology is unable to scale the network sufficiently without consuming an unreasonable amount of power. This is why the research team, along with Graphene Flagship, believe that these graphene-enabled integrated photonic devices could be the key to solving the bandwidth problem. Personally, my money is on these guys (their institution has a strong reputation for cutting-edge R&D) to spark the next wave of telecoms innovations.
An area with historically impressive growth rates, and another field in which graphene stands to make waves. At the end of 2017, it was revealed that layers of graphene compacted under extreme pressure to such an extent that they became bulletproof. Since the material is 200 times stronger than steel but considerably lighter, defense companies worldwide are involved in the development of graphene-based technologies. Going back to the fact that graphene is highly flexible, its benefits over kevlar are obvious, and I expect military uptake of such technologies to be immediate once the mass production issue is solved.
On that note, a Chinese company recently announced that it had begun mass production of graphene-enhanced running shoes. While this amounts to no more than a marketing gimmick, the world has come a very long way since the days when producing a stable quantity of the material was nigh on impossible. Graphene has the potential to birth a whole world of new disruptive technologies that will revolutionise industries, just as silicon did six decades ago. This article is by no means an exhaustive review of new graphene developments, but these are what really caught my eye. Now that confidence has coalesced, the high growth areas have become clear, and I will certainly be shopping for graphene investments in 2018.