Lord of the rings

01 Jan 2016

10 years of Vision: Two years after we wrote about graphene, it remains a long way from widespread commercial adoption, although a graphene-enhanced anti-corrosion system has reportedly been deployed on bridges and wind-turbine towers in China. The price of graphene has fallen, with the asking price for a four-pack of 10mm x 10mm graphene mono-layers on a silicon base down to $146 from $229 two years ago. The stock market has not been kind, however, with some significant share price falls. 

The future for graphene was bright in Vision 2016, with more than 9,000 applications for patents at the start of the previous year.

In 2010, two Russian scientists working at the University of Manchester shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their work in isolating graphene, a form of elemental carbon the existence of which had long been posited but which had never been isolated.
 
Two things were striking about their discovery; first, the simplicity with which they had succeeded in isolating graphene and second, the speed with which it was recognised – some six years after the discovery, which represents a lightning response by the standards of the Nobel Foundation (since 1985 c.60% of awards in physics have been made more than 20 years after the initial discovery).
 
The timeliness of the award could be interpreted as reflecting the significance of the discovery because graphene has the potential to be the material of the 21st century.
 

Graphene – a chemistry primer

Graphene is a two dimensional sheet of pure carbon, just one atom thick, within which each carbon atom is bonded to three others. Stack two or more layers of graphene together and you have graphite, an allotrope of carbon most commonly encountered as the ‘lead’ in a pencil (graphite comes from the Greek word graphein, ‘to write’); stack 500 million graphene sheets and you would have a pencil.
 
The existence of graphene was first postulated in 1947, but the stability of a single sheet was questioned and prior to 2004 the limit was layers of graphite 50 -100 sheets thick. In 2004 however, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov used the ‘Scotch Tape’ technique to isolate single layers. Starting with a block of graphite, they applied a strip of Scotch tape and then pulled it off.
 
This would have brought hundreds of layers away at once, so they took their original strip of tape, applied a fresh one to it and then removed that; as this process was repeated so the number of layers diminished until they had just one.
 
What makes graphene so exciting is its unique physical characteristics, which are highlighted overleaf. These are a function of the nature of the bonding within the carbon layer – very short, strong bonds between the carbon atoms (giving the strength) with electrons above and below the layers (conductivity).
 
The Nobel Foundation attempted to put some of these characteristics into a real-world1 example as follows: one square metre of graphene formed into a hammock shape, would support a 4kg cat, yet would weigh as much as one of the (proverbial) cat’s whiskers.
 
Properties of graphene
Weight / sq m >200x that of steel
Transparency 1/1000 that of paper
Electrical conductivity As good as copper
Thermal conductivity 10x greater than copper
Flexibility It can stretch by up to 20%
 
There are dozens of potential applications for graphene, within a market that IDTechEx forecasts will be worth $390m in 2024, compared to $20m in 2014 (35% compound growth over the 10 years). These range from fairly unspectacular but practical anti-corrosion paints to the potential identified by scientists at Princeton University for a graphene sensor on a tooth to monitor respiration rates. We highlight three areas of research which reflect different aspects of graphene’s characteristics:
 

Computing

Perhaps the single most exciting opportunity. Manufacturers have been very successful over the past 40 years in cramming ever more transistors, the building blocks of the modern computer chip, onto the same sized piece of silicon, but fundamental physics means that we are nearing the limit of this evolution. Graphene has the potential to extend the longevity of Moore’s Law (that transistor density will double circa every two years) for another generation. IBM is notably active in this field of research.
 

Materials science

A 1% mix of graphene in a plastic polymer could make it electrically conductive, as well as improving heat resistance and mechanical strength. A practical example of this could be in an aircraft’s fuselage, where currently copper mesh has to be embedded in the layers of polymer to safely channel electricity in the event of a lightning strike. This not only adds substantial cost to the manufacturing process, but also significant weight. A plastic resin with graphene built in would remove the need for this copper, reducing weight and improving the economics of flying. In addition, graphene could make components stronger, and could even act as a sensor in the wing to monitor stresses and detect defects. 
 

Touch screens

Being tough, flexible, virtually transparent and electrically conductive, graphene has huge potential as a touch screen for phones, tablets, smart watches etc. 
 

Can the potential be delivered?

It seems fairly certain that graphene will become commonplace in our lives, perhaps not within the next decade but almost certainly the one after. However, media and marketing hyperbole is no guarantee of commercial success for a new material, and a product closely related to graphene provides a very timely illustration of this.
 
Had we been writing a similar article to this just five years ago, we may well have been focused on carbon nanotubes, which are simply sheets of graphene rolled into tubes. Several tubes nestled within each other are termed multi-wall nanotubes (MWNTs).
 
Nanotubes share many of the same characteristics as graphene and expectations of their potential led the German chemicals company Bayer to invest €100m between 2010 and 2013 in a production facility to help meet its global estimates of a €2bn market for MWNTs within a decade. However, concerns around toxicity and high production costs resulted in the facility being closed and Bayer exiting the market.
 
Should similar concerns about graphene (which is yet to be thoroughly scrutinised) prove well founded, all bets could be off.
 

Who is leading the charge?

More than 9,000 patents were published for applications of graphene in 2014 (note that graphene itself could not be patented as carbon is a naturally occurring material) having grown pretty much exponentially between 2005 and 2012 (see chart 1). Before 2009 the Americans accounted for the lion’s share of patents (49%) whilst the Chinese accounted for only 7%. Since 2010 though the story has been very different, with the Chinese now accounting for 52% of filings and the USA just 16%.
 
Disappointingly, despite having been the ‘home’ of graphene, the UK’s patent count doesn’t warrant its own reporting line, grouped under ‘other’. Of the top 20 individual holders of patents, only five are corporations, led by Korea’s Samsung, with the balance being universities and other research institutions, the mix indicating just how far graphene applications are from becoming mainstream commercial enterprises. IBM of the US is the only name on the list outwith Asia: there are four Korean names, one Taiwanese, and fourteen from China.
 
Graphene patents graph for Investec Vision 2018
 

The investment opportunity

Most of the investible graphene opportunities at this stage are focused on the production of graphene on a commercial scale for sale into Research & Development laboratories around the world. The challenge is producing practical amounts of sufficient quality to allow commercial development of graphene-based products, and here we have some way to go.
 
While mono-layers are commercially available, they are far from cheap; at the time of writing, reference to the www.graphenea.com website shows a pack of four 10mm x 10mm graphene mono-layers on a silicon base for sale at $229 (c.£150) – on a per kilo basis this must make graphene amongst the most expensive materials on earth.
 
Quoted graphene companies are very much at the smaller end of the market capitalisation spectrum, though fortunately for us three of them reside in the UK: Applied Graphene (AGM, AIM, £34m market cap), Haydale Graphene (HAYD, AIM, £21m) and Graphene Nanochem (GRPH, AIM, £13m).
 
All three are relatively new to the market, none are profitable and a purchase at this stage has to be regarded as speculation rather than investment. Price performance year-to-date has been variable to say the least; Applied Graphene is modestly higher, Graphene Nanochem has fallen by c.75% and Haydale has almost trebled. This level of volatility is likely to continue.

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