Graphene has been hailed as a revolutionary new nanomaterial with significant potential applications in high-value manufacturing contexts. However, the fate of the unique two-dimensional carbon material rests in the ongoing maturation of its supply chain.
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To fulfill its potential, the production and distribution of graphene materials and associated technology throughout global supply chains must be effective, efficient, and viable.
A Fledgling Industrial Supply Chain
Industrial producers are beginning to learn how to manufacture graphene of high quality at commercially viable costs and timeframes. The industry as a whole is beginning to understand the kinds of materials and products that will be sought after for mass-market applications.
Within the supply chain, there are also numerous companies springing up to functionalize graphene, disperse it in material matrices, and design products and devices that capitalize on its unique advantages.
But there remain information gaps throughout the industry. Potential end-users and designers of consumer products are often unaware of the many properties of graphene, and consumers are not yet convinced of its applications.
In addition, designing new products requires a significant investment in expertise, equipment, and supply chain relationships just to get a working prototype together. Bringing that prototype forward to mass manufacturing generally requires significant upfront costs for manufacturing and supply chain technology, an investment that may not see a return simply due to low market awareness.
Still, things are improving. The graphene supply chain is maturing currently, with increasingly more intermediary businesses offering microservices and forming a healthy supply ecosystem.
This ecosystem should contain equipment manufacturers for production as well as research and development, 2D materials producers, specialists in functionalization and matrix dispersal, product manufacturers, and distributors in business as well as consumer markets.
The good news is that the dial is continually moving up: graphene’s industrial supply chain is becoming progressively more robust, resilient, and geographically dispersed every year. If the current direction of travel is maintained, graphene products will enter consumer shelves and enterprise catalogs in just a few short years.
Producing Graphene for Research Purposes
The majority of graphene that has been produced to date has been for research purposes. As such, production techniques have tended to favor quality and consistency over scalability and viability.
Graphene, an allotrope of the element carbon, was first isolated by scientists working at the University of Manchester, UK, in 2004. It was quickly recognized as one of the most promising nanomaterials (materials with a dimension measuring less than 100 nm) yet discovered.
As a two-dimensional material, graphene exhibits remarkable electrical, thermal, and optical properties that are a feature of the complex and non-intuitive laws of quantum physics, which only operate at extremely low spatial dimensions.
Graphene was initially produced from processed graphite in a subtractive process, resulting in a high-quality, pure material that was well suited for research purposes.
However, production is currently moving beyond lab-based production toward industrial, scalable methods – and the accompanying industrial supply chain that will make mass graphene production viable.
At present, Samsung, the global electronics company, invests more in graphene-based patents than any other company. This is not surprising: nanoelectronics is probably the largest future application area for this 2D material.
Industrializing Production and Creating an Ecosystem of Supply Chains
As well as subtractive graphite processing, graphene has also traditionally been produced with chemical vapor deposition techniques. The latter is a scalable method; however, it is only capable of making monolayers of high-quality graphene films suitable for applications as semiconductor materials.
As well as scaling up chemical vapor deposition technologies to meet industrial demand for monolayer graphene semiconductors, the industry is also working on improving bulk production methods.
For this to work, the industry needs to develop a robust industrial supply chain, including equipment manufacturers, producers, suppliers and distributors. Such an innovation backdrop is essential to realize its many and diverse potential applications in high-value manufacturing.
Industrial production techniques include exfoliation, sonication, and plasma treatment. These methods break graphite up into controlled flakes of two-dimensional graphene.
Exfoliation, for example, produces extremely high-quality flakes of graphene, but the method is absolutely not scalable and therefore unviable for commercial applications.
Plasma treatment and sonication, however, are capable of putting out large amounts of graphene oxide and nanoplatelets which are used in plastics as additives. These products can be integrated within glass reinforced plastics as well as in concrete, imparting strength and thermal conductivity to the final compound material.
Graphene-based materials like these are also suitable for applications as coating and printing materials.
Deposition methods that create large amounts of graphene on foil substrates with tiling technology are currently being developed to transfer high-quality layers of graphene over a large substrate area.
References and Further Reading
Backes, C., et al. (2020). Production and processing of graphene and related materials. 2D Materials. doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/ab1e0a.
Johnson, D. (2016). The Graphene Supply Chain Is Maturing, But It Still Needs Some Guidance. [Online] Graphene Council. Available at: https://www.thegraphenecouncil.org/blogpost/1501180/255576/The-Graphene-Supply-Chain-is-Maturing-But-It-Still-Needs-Some-Guidance
Taking graphene mass production to the next era. (2019) [Online] Cordis. Available at: https://cordis.europa.eu/article/id/124618-taking-graphene-mass-production-to-the-next-era