graphene mesh small

Graphene: A primer on the miracle material

Share this story

Graphene is sometimes described as being two-dimensional, or 2D, which is probably more a reflection of the enthusiasm people feel about the material rather than a statement of fact since graphene is actually one atom thick. 

It may only be one single atom, but it’s still there, which means that graphene is, in fact, three-dimensional.

Another interesting thing about graphene is that the naturally occurring composite mineral it’s extracted from – graphite – has been in use for thousands of years in such things as ceramic paints, and it’s been used in pencils for decades. But only now has graphene been extracted from it and suggested for a wide array of applications. 

Graphite is a form of coal, which, as most readers might know, is somewhat brittle and soft compared with other types of rock.

And yet the graphene made from it is said to be one of the strongest materials ever discovered and has already found a wide range of applications, most notably, perhaps, in the electronics and automotive sectors.

 

The global graphene market size was valued at the relatively small amount of $24 million in 2015, by Grand View Research, but it’s expected to grow to around 20 times that size by 2025.

With so much interest in the material, the International Organization for Standardization has published what is said to be the world’s first graphene standard to provide consistency across the fast-growing industry around the world and accelerate commercialisation, according to CEMag.us.

Deep dive 

Graphite mines are being dug in more locations around the world, which is not surprising when you read reports that prices for the raw material have been increasing in the past few months and some suppliers have been making significantly higher profits.

According to Investing News, the country which produced the largest amount of graphite in 2016 was China, which explains the numerous stories about “coal mining” in the country in the past couple of years.

Top 10 countries in graphite mining

Rank Country 2016 mine production
1. China 780,000 metric tons
2. India 170,000 metric tons
3. Brazil 80,000 metric tons
4. Turkey 32,000 metric tons
5. North Korea 30,000 metric tons
6. Mexico 22,000 metric tons
7. Canada 21,000 metric tons
8. Russia 15,000 metric tons
9. Norway 8,000 metric tons
10. Madagascar 8,000 metric tons
Total top 10 1,166,000 metric tons
Price per metric ton $10,000
Total market for top 10 $11,660,000,000

The price of $10,000 is for processed graphite, and is simply a mid-range figure taken from an estimate published on Green Tech Media, which quotes prices of “between $7,000 and $12,000 per metric ton for natural spherical graphite anode material”.

Graphite “flakes”, which are probably what comes out of the mine, is said to be priced at around $1,000, according to Statista.com. Although, on Alibaba.com, it seems you can pick up a ton for about $300.

Synthetic equivalents of spherical graphite anode material, says Green Tech, can fetch prices of between $15,000 and $20,000.

Details about the grades of graphite are probably beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth pointing out another report, in BayStreet.ca, which says that the batteries in Tesla cars contain more graphite than lithium.

Lithium-based batteries are still far more common out in the world. They’ve been around a long time, and they’re said to be coming down in price.

A report by Navigant Research, mentioned in our article about China’s electric car market, says the global market for lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications is expected to grow from $7.8 billion in 2015 to $30.6 billion in 2024.

The exact rate of growth of graphite-based batteries is anyone’s guess at the moment, but most would agree it has massive potential.

There are numerous websites which suggest ideas for investments in graphite, such as Seeking Alpha and, of course, Investing News.

One of the few drawbacks of graphite is that nature has made it very difficult to extract graphene from it.

But as Green Tech points out, a group of Chinese companies is planning to build “graphite megafactories” to produce 260,000 megatons of graphite anodes per year.

Skating on thin graphene 

While graphite is brittle, when it is broken down into its constituent ingredients, the graphene material is virtually unbreakable – some say it’s as hard as diamonds, or even harder.

Not only is graphene only one atom thick and superstrong – 100 to 200 times stronger than steel apparently, but it is also flexible and is said to be an excellent conductor.

Graphene atoms arrange themselves in a hexagonal mesh structure – with each atom at 0.142 nanometres from each other at their closest. The material is said to be such a good barrier that it doesn’t even allow helium atoms through.

So far, research for applications has concentrated on areas such as:

  • membranes;
  • composites and coatings;
  • energy;
  • biomedical;
  • sensors; and
  • electronics.

Specific products that would use graphene, apart from batteries as already mentioned, include solar cells, light-emitting diodes – similar to the fancy new tech Apple is using for its latest phones, and a whole new generation of smart screens, whether they are touch panels or windows of buildings which can collect solar energy, which is something the Fraunhofer Institute claims to have developed.

A list of graphene manufacturers and suppliers can be found on NanoWerk.com, and probably many other websites, but we’ll randomly highlight one or two here.

Advanced Graphene Products claims to be the world’s only manufacturer of high-strength metallurgical graphene, which the company says has various industrial applications.

Another company which is developing graphene for industrial applications is Graphenea Nanomaterials, which says it has successfully transferred its graphene using the chemical vapour deposition method to a range of devices, solar cells, light-emitting diodes and other substrates, which essentially means surface material.

In China, probably the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics products such as smartphones, a company called 2D Carbon Graphene Material has supplied large quantities of graphene products to mobile phone makers as well as wearable device makers and home appliance companies.

A company called Adgero claims its “regenerative” graphene-based braking system saves trucks up to 25 per cent in energy costs because of the increased resistance to wear and tear.

And a company called RD Graphene claims to have invented what it calls a “design-for-manufacture” process which can create 3D graphene for high-volume manufacture.

Still at the idea stage 

It probably should be noted that most of the graphene applications being talked about are still at the early stages.

A company may talk about wanting to use graphene in its products, but it’s just too early to guarantee it.

For example, Fisker, another high-end maker of electric cars, last year said its new supercars would include graphene batteries, but so far that battery is still in development.

Tesla, which has been experiencing some albeit unconnected manufacturing bottlenecks, may want to stick with proven lithium-ion batteries rather than introduce an entirely new technology on a large scale.

And although you wouldn’t expect Apple to be any less secretive now than it has been in the past, some have speculated that one of the reasons why there are some delays in the manufacturing of the iPhone X is the difficulty of manufacturing the screens – because they probably use graphene.

It was only a few months ago that South Korean researchers were said to have made the first OLED screen using graphene for its electrodes, according to a report on Engadget.com.

But producing a limited number is obviously not the same as mass manufacturing, let alone producing enough units for Apple’s literally billions of customers.

According to Wall Street Journal, Apple is using Samsung manufacturing facilities in Vietnam to get the screens made – Samsung will make $110 for each iPhone X sold.

Apple is also paying LG $2.7 billion for an OLED production line, according to 9to5Mac.com.

Money is clearly no object to Apple, but it remains to be seen if the company can do for graphene what it did for a whole basket of advanced technologies, especially sensors.

As Chad Lucien, of Hillcrest Labs, told Robotics and Automation News in an interview, it’s because of the economies of scale gained through the global success of the iPhone and other smartphones that the prices of sensors went down dramatically.

“The smartphone market has been an enormous contributor to the advancement of these technologies,” says Lucien.

“When we started developing our motion technology, a gyroscope cost maybe $6 per axis. Today, you can buy a three-axis gyroscope in a single package for less than a dollar.”


Share this story