Graphene is fantastic: it conducts electricity better than any other material, it is stronger (per unit volume) than steel, it is an amazing thermal conductor, it is also bendable, stretchable, rollable, fiexible, and just about any other -able you could come up with. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who first managed to make it in the lab in 2004, got the Nobel prize already in 2010. An award so quickly after the discovery is unprecedented for the physics Nobel, at least in the past 50 years. A stream of discoveries of the material’s spectacular properties has heated the presses of scientific journals the world over for the past eight years, and the European Union could soon invest a billion euros into research to bring graphene into everyone’s cellphone and shoelace. So when will graphene fulfill its promise as the amazing new material of the future? When will everything from window panes to smart shoes to yet unimagined electronic gadgets contain graphene; when will the rise of the new wonder material generate new wealth and a boost to the global economy? Or has the hype made us all place unreasonable demands on that hexagonal arrangement of carbon atoms, not unlike those we have in our pencils? To answer these questions, we have to take a look at the state of the graphene market today, but also at its potential application markets and competing technologies in those markets.
It is not surprising that the biggest share of the graphene market today is occupied by graphene for research labs. There are dozens of research papers still being published every week, highlighting the material’s properties ranging from amazing electrical conductivity, to thermal insulation, to optoelectronics, to tensile strength. Some researchers choose to make their own graphene, using the now famous “scotch tape method”, however the yield of that process is low and the benefits of having a student spending their weekends in a lab with sticky tape are decreasing with the rise of competing methods. The most commonly used method to grow graphene right now is chemical vapor deposition (CVD), which results in large area films of a solid quality. CVD machines can be expensive though, and not all labs want to invest the time to learn how to use them, so they often buy CVD graphene. The research market is big, with hundreds of groups worldwide using up square centimeters of graphene every week, but the researchers tend to turn to the market leaders with an established name, like Graphene Supermarket, Graphenea, and Graphene Square. These companies have been serving the community since the early days, and their names propagate by word of mouth.
The number of researchers in graphene is still growing, but in fact the needs of the market are being filled by the established businesses, and there is very little room for new companies. Those that start now will have to be innovative. For example planarTECH, which recently started graphene sales, was also the first to offer other 2D materials. The new class of materials, such as boron nitride and molybdenum disulfide, are just beginning to show up in research papers but promise to be as important as graphene, with complementary properties. Recently also Graphene Supermarket started to offer these additional 2D materials, and, once again, there is plenty of room for growth of the market, but companies will have to act fast to secure their share – something we will be able to judge already during the course of next year.
Exfoliated and CVD grown graphene retain all the beautiful properties of the material, but are relatively expensive (certainly too expensive for mass production) and slow to make. Naturally, applications that do not put a stringent requirement on the quality of graphene have arisen and occupy a large share of the market. Graphene is sold in the form of graphene oxide powder, nanoplatelets, and mixed with other materials to serve a purpose in, for example, the printed ink industry. Vorbeck is one company which excels in this field, as exemplified by their recent opening of an online store for graphene conductive ink, sold literally by the barrel. The uses range from printed electronics, smart packaging, and smart cards, to security & identification labeling, all emerging markets with tremendous growth potential. Vorbeck should be one to profit from this, although other technologies like, for example, Canatu’s NanoBud, are highly competitive. It could very well be that in the end all the competing technologies are present on the market at the same time, each taking up a share of a sector.
Other low-tech uses of graphene, such as strong fibers obtained by mixing graphene with polymers, hold potential for huge market penetration, and indeed this kind of application is being exploited by many companies worldwide. Since the graphene can be mixed with pretty much anything for these low-tech purposes, it will not be economical for graphene specialists to do the mixing. Rather, one company will provide the graphene, and the other will simply buy it and mix it with their desired composite material. The question still remains who the main distributors of such graphene will be, with Vorbeck, Graphene Supermarket, and Angstron Materials the most promising suspects.
The battle looks even tougher for graphene on the market for flexible screens and mobile devices, for the so-called “ITO replacement”. The biggest proponent of graphene as a replacement for the increasingly expensive ITO is Samsung, which also does the most research in this direction. Of course, such a large company is smart enough to research other possibilities in parallel, and its recent promotional videos have focused on the competing OLED technology, indicating that maybe graphene will never make it even to Samsung’s displays. The technology is just not mature enough yet, and in that sense graphene arrived too late.
These are some of the main uses of graphene, however there are more, as brought to light by the breadth of the patent landscape. Subscribe to our mailing list, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook to keep up to date with developments as we track the commercialization of graphene.