A new report due to be published this month by Cientifica gets beneath the layers of hype that posit graphene at the top of a pile of wonder materials, promising interesting reading for anyone wanting a real-world evaluation of graphene and its chances of success.
Three years after announcing a substantial capacity increase to its multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT) production, Germany‘s Bayer Material Science recently announced that it was completely shutting down its MWNT production. The arms race into nanomaterials capacity-building that began almost a decade ago has, today, amounted to a stockpile of excess product. Nanomaterials, like fullerenes and nanotubes, are now much cheaper due to oversupply, but this matters little because there are no applications to create demand, and the ones that do exist require very small quantities compared with current capacity.
Cientifica’s upcoming Graphene Opportunity Report, takes a similar stance to the UK company’s first edition Nanotechnology Opportunity Report published a decade ago. The report countered the predictions at the time of a trillion-dollar market and a revolution across manufacturing industries, which have largely failed to materialize. Like the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report, the Graphene Opportunity Report purports the real value to be in applications, which means for companies setting themselves up as materials suppliers, most will need to ascend the value chain, developing applications that can exploit their materials and resulting products be it powders, dispersions and even inks.
‘There are something like a hundred graphene companies, or more, worldwide. For materials suppliers that are aiming to make graphene by the multi-tonne quantity, where there are as yet no applications developed, this industry risks going through a similar hype bubble that nanotubes and other nanomaterials sectors have been through,’ says Tim Harper, founder of Cientifica.
A strong point for graphene lies in its ability to be processed as an ink, making it potentially compatible with plastic, or organic, electronics: a group of nanomaterials that can be used to fabricate devices by solution-processable techniques. The plastic electronics industry has gone through its own cycle of hype but is making steady headway so there might be opportunities for graphene to leverage progress made so far and benefit plastic electronics in return. But, as Harper warns, new materials are only taken up into production if they offer a cheaper process to the incumbent one they aim to replace, or they offer far superior performance.