By Will Soutter
Graphene has been referred to as the "strongest, most conductive, most flexible--and most hyped--material in the world." Discovered in 2004, graphene is a crystalline form of carbon with the same basic molecular structure as graphite and carbon nanotubes. It is essentially a one-atom thick layer of the multi-layered graphite.
There has been a lot of excitement about futuristic applications of graphene. Whilst the commercialization of the material is forging ahead, many of the earliest appearances will be much more mundane. Image credit: Photos.com
Graphene is very strong and light, almost transparent, and conducts electricity and heat extremely well. It is also the first natural two-dimensional substance discovered, which gives it many interesting properties which had not been observed before.
There has been a lot of talk about commercial applications for it since its discovery, but so far the real applications in industrial or commercial products have been very limited. What is holding graphene back--and will it ever live up to its theoretical potential in the real world?
There are certainly a large number of people doing their best to find commercial applications for graphene that the public will actually use. Many graphene-based inventions have been produced, but none have seen commercial success so far. Some of the better known graphene inventions to date include:
The graphene-based holographic optical disc
DNA-based graphene transistors
Reasons for Graphene's Lack of Commercialization So Far
As previously mentioned, graphene is highly conductive - it can conduct electrons at nearly the speed of light, which is 100 times faster than any other known materials. However, for many applications in electronics, it is actually too conductive, as it has no band gap.
A bandgap is a range of energy where no electrons can exist, and is the inherent property of semiconducting materials which allows them to be used to make electronic components like diodes and transistors. Without this, the applications of graphene are limited.
Researchers have tried various methods to introduce artificial bandgaps into graphene, from patterning it into nanoscale ribbons to doping its surface with chemicals. However, these methods are typically complex and expensive, making it difficult to adapt them for large-scale use in industry.
The equipment used to make high-quality, single-layer graphene remains expensive, and there are quality control issues when producing the material on a large scale. Many companies are working on toppling these obstacles, however. Image credit: Photos.com
Manufacturing issues have also plagued the "simpler" applications of graphene, which take advantage of its conductivity and strength in its pure form. This pure form has proved to be more difficult to produce in large quantities than was initially imagined, as performance-inhibiting defects form very easily.
Several companies have devised innovative quality control schemes to reduce the incidence of these defects, and more and more graphene-producing companies continue to appear.
The graphene materials which the most commercially advanced are the small-area flakes and platelets. This type of material is easier to produce on large scales using existing manufacturing technology, and is already being used in some niche market applications.
The Commercial Future of Graphene
Companies like Bluestone Global Tech, Graphene Frontiers, Graphenea, and 2-D Tech are developing novel manufacturing technology to allow them to manufacture high quality single-layer graphene sheets. Applications for this include higher value, longer-term prospects like touchscreen displays and improved photovoltaic cells.
There is also a plethora of applications for graphene flakes and nanoplatelets - companies such as Haydale and Vorbeck Materials are looking to exploit this area of the market, using graphene to create advanced composites and conductive inks for printable electronics.
With the manufacturing side of the graphene industry in clear growth, translating it to applications is more important then ever to maintain the momentum.
Major electronics companies are continuing their research to integrate graphene into their future products. Government-backed schemes in the UK and Europe are pushing the development of commercial facilities and funding further exploration of the ways in which graphene's properties can be exploited. All in all, graphene's future still looks very bright.