Graphene: research now, reap next decade
TMT Predictions 2016
Deloitte Global predicts the total value of the graphene materials market in 2016 is likely to be in the low tens of millions of dollars, which is less than an hour’s projected revenues from smartphone sales. Graphene has been called a ‘wonder material’, as it offers an unrivalled combination of tensile, electrical, thermal and optical properties. Yet, it may be decades before this material’s potential is fully realized.
Graphene is a single atom thick two-dimensional structure, which is a million times thinner than a human hair or a sheet of paper. It is based on graphite, which in turn is a crystallized form of carbon, one of the most abundant elements in the world. Graphene is flexible and very strong, and (in one aspect) is tougher than a diamond and stronger than steel. It is also transparent, impermeable to gases and liquids, and an excellent conductor – even better than gold and copper. These qualities could enable a vast array of breakthrough applications, from ultra-lightweight manufactured products and flexible displays to high-capacity batteries and memory chips to improved desalinization filters and even contact lenses that enable infrared vision.
Although graphene has great potential, it also presents many challenges that need to be overcome. The main challenge lies in manufacturing large quantities of graphene, in various formats, and at an affordable price, with effective yields and a purity sufficient so as not to impair graphene’s desired chemical properties. Despite many academic and commercial research groups investigating methods of production, making large quantities of graphene remains a profound challenge.
In 2016, and most likely in the decade to come, graphene will be in a research and prototyping phase. While products marketed as ‘graphene’ may be on the market in 2016, many, if not all, will likely be constructed principally from more traditional materials and incorporate a limited quantity of graphene. For example, graphene is currently used as an element within a resin to manufacture solid structures such as carbon fiber sports equipment. However, research and development spending for the year is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and in the medium term graphene may be incorporated into products worth many billions of dollars per year.
It is important to note that many of the most impactful materials have taken decades before attaining mainstream adoption. Aluminium was used as a luxury metal in 19th century France, but remained a niche material until the invention of the airplane, which uniquely required aluminium’s specific combination of strength and weight to make commercial flight viable. Carbon fiber has similarly had a long gestation: it was first used commercially in the late 1800s as a component in light bulbs. Today it is used only selectively in vehicles, even though its benefits are very well understood.
In 2016, graphene-enhanced products are only going to offer a glimpse of the material’s full potential, but a key point to consider is that new materials disrupt existing products and lead to new technologies. So some of the future technologies and benefits of graphene, which could embody the ‘graphene era’ and change our world, only currently exist within the realms of our imagination.