Graphene Nanoplatelets and the Graphene Market: An Interview with Ross Kozarsky

Interview by Kal Kaur

Ross Kozarsky, Senior Analyst at Lux Research, talks to Kal Kaur at AZoM about the application of graphene nanoplatelets and the growth of the graphene market.

KK: Can you provide a description of graphene nanoplatelets?

RK: Graphene nanoplatelets (GNPs) are discs of graphene, one to hundreds of atomic layers thick.

KK: Research into graphene and its functional capabilities is becoming a consistent topic of conversation in the world of material science. Why are we starting to see graphene nanoplatelets drive the growth of the graphene market?

RK: Graphene has been touted as a wunderkind nanomaterial and has been the recipient of significant achievements along its short yet ample timeline. It offers the potential to impact everything from high-performance computing to the rust-proofing of steel, due to its exceptional mechanical, electronic, and thermal properties. Accordingly, it has received an ample amount of research attention. However, one look at the rocky history of graphene’s carbon cousin multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs), shows that a research and patent boom along with impressive technical performance is far from a guarantee of commercial success as challenges such as high costs, dispersion and other processing issues, and competition from other emerging material classes loom large.

Just as critical for evaluating market potential as weighing the performance advantages of graphene against cost and competition is the need to distinguish between two very different forms of the material: namely, GNPs and graphene films. In the short- to medium-term, GNPs will start to see commercial adoption in conductive additive and mechanical reinforcement applications in composites, energy storage, and conductive inks and coatings.

KK: Despite the recent successes of graphene, the design and development of graphene films will be hindered by technical and economic challenges. Can you describe some of the most fundamental challenges that this market is likely to face and why?

RK: The conductivity, transparency, elasticity, and mobility properties of graphene sheets offer significant innovation opportunities, but most applications have significant cost and processing hurdles to overcome. For instance, indium tin oxide (ITO) replacement in transparent conductive film (TCFs) applications is a natural fit, but CVD synthesis processes for graphene films are prohibitively expensive at $100,000/m2 or more. While prices should decrease with development and scale-up, graphene will not only have to beat out ITO for market share in these applications, but also best several other emerging material options, including metal nanowires, metal nanoparticles, conductive polymers, and single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs). Overcoming current deposition area limitations is another hurdle.

KK: How will the development of graphene technology evolve in the current market to help drive further growth of this material in new market areas?

RK: Graphene developers will continue to refine and scale-up their production processes, squeezing cost reductions out of economies of scale and automation. However, one of the major keys for further commercial growth of the material will be expanding partnership networks between start-ups and their corporate strategic partners. For instance, XG Sciences’ march of strategic relationship announcements – Hanwha Chemical in December 2010, Posco in June 2011, and Cabot in November 2011 – arguably give it the strongest partnership portfolio in the space, and its recent capacity expansion makes it one of the low cost and capacity leaders. Other leading start-up Vorbeck Materials, along with partner MeadWestvaco, released its Siren anti-theft smart packaging device to retail stores in early 2012, becoming the first graphene-based product to hit the commercial market.

KK: Can you discuss the Lux Innovative Grid and how this will help drive growth of the graphene market?

RK: The Lux Innovation Grid provides a framework to assess graphene developers. Just as graphene material and application developers use standard tests to determine performance metrics like strength, conductivity, permeability, transparency, mobility, and cost, would-be partners, customers, and investors in this space also need concrete data and logic to measure the performance of start-ups. By conducting primary interviews and site visits with start-up companies populating the graphene landscape, we’ve compiled information on start-ups’ technical and business performance to assess companies developing graphene materials that touch an array of applications and markets and operate a wide range of business models and technologies. Specifically, we scored start-ups on three distinct attributes – technical value, business execution, and maturity – and one relative comparison metric – the Lux Take. After evaluating each company by these four factors, we mapped across four quadrants: “dominant” companies are graphene’s top performers; “high-potential” companies have attractive technologies, but little to show for them; “undistinguished” companies perform well in the market despite lacking high technical value; and “long-shot” companies lag behind in execution and lack valuable technologies.

The Lux Innovation Grid helps answer important questions like “What’s the best graphene company for partnership agreement?” or “Which graphene company is a good investment target?”

KK: What commercialization challenges do graphene film companies still face and how do you see these challenges being addressed?

RK: Graphene film companies face major commercialization hurdles, including reducing costs, scaling-up the substrate transfer process, overcoming current deposition area limitations, and besting other emerging material solutions. Start-ups and corporations alike are working to address these challenges, but the slew of technical and economic challenges will severely limit the size of the graphene film market through the end of this decade.

KK: Apart from the technical performance of graphene technology, what other key features will ensure that this material secures commercial success?

RK: Given the many challenges, many in the industry believe the best market applications for graphene are where a combination of its properties can be leveraged. In other words, because the competition for performance/cost superiority is so great on any one property dimension, graphene is best primed for commercial success when it is able to fully shine as a multifunctional material. For instance, the triumvirate of transparency, conductivity, and elasticity is quite amenable to flexible electronics, while the combination of transparency, impermeability, and conductivity is an ideal match for use in transparent conductive coatings and barrier films

In the near-to-medium term, the bulk of graphene’s commercial success will be derived from replacement of incumbent materials like graphite and carbon black in composite, conductive ink and coating, and energy storage applications. In the long run, if the multifunctional capabilities of the material – including modulus, electrical and thermal conductivity, transparency, impermeability, and elasticity – can be combined in an economic and scalable manner, it could serve as an enabling platform for novel uses ranging from tissue engineering to flexible optoelectronic devices.

KK: How widely is this material used on a global scale and how does this reflect the commercial status of this material?

RK: Today, demand for graphene is limited, reaching just $9 million in 2012. The fact that the vast majority of this quantity came from research material sales is indicative that graphene is still very much in the prototype and product development stages of it evolution.

KK: Are there any important development objectives that will be paramount for graphene film manufacturers to help keep the research design and development efforts on this material evolving and adapting to its many fields of application?

RK: In addition to the obvious cost and deposition area limitations of graphene films, evolving the standard synthesis process to be more “scale-up friendly” is also critical. While many variations exist, the typical technique for synthesizing monolayer sheets of graphene uses surface-catalyzed CVD to grow graphene films from a carbon precursor (typically methane), using copper or nickel foil as the catalytic layer. Following synthesis, many developers are able to transfer the graphene film to a target substrate – such as glass, PET, silicon, or silicon dioxide. However, this substrate transfer is non-trivial, as it requires a wet etch to remove the metal foil – dissolution of the metal foil is very slow and requires strong acids, thus making scale-up a significant challenge. What’s more, cost of the metal foil itself is a significant input, and thus effective recycling of the copper or nickel would likely be a prerequisite for an economical production process.

KK: Can you describe how and where you see the graphene market over the next decade?

RK: The aggregate graphene market will grow from a base of $9 million in 2012 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40% to $126 million in 2020, with GNPs contributing the bulk of demand. In particular, composites and energy storage will duke it out for GNP supremacy, while conductive opaque inks and anti- corrosion coatings also provide meaningful volumes. Despite the hot pursuit by start-ups and multinationals alike, adoption of graphene-based transparent conductive films (TCFs) will be delayed by a slew of technical and economic challenges, growing to just $6 million in 2020.

On the supply-side, if all officially announced expansions materialize, GNP capacity will inflate from 270 tons/yr today to 790 tons/yr. In particular, if China’s Ningbo Morsh makes good on its ambitious scale-up plans to 300 tons/yr, it will boast the largest GNP capacity in the world – in the process, making China the most prolific GNP-producing nation and keep Asia the most voluminous region. These anticipated expansions, combined with a relatively modest forecasted commercial demand for the material, contribute to a growing threat that the industry may soon find itself in oversupply, much like its carbon cousin MWNTs. While such a situation and concomitant cost reduction may benefit industrial users, leading MWNT suppliers can attest to the fact that oversupply is an anathema for a developer’s ability to become profitable, as low capacity utilization hinders the ability to recoup capital equipment and investment expenses.

About Ross Kozarsky

Ross Kozarsky is a Senior Analyst who leads Lux Research’s Advanced Materials team. Ross’ primary responsibilities include providing strategic advice and on-going intelligence for emerging coating, composite, metal, and platform materials that serve as enabling technologies for new markets and applications in industries ranging from oil and gas to electronics. He has advised a wide array of entities from large multinational corporations to investment firms to government agencies on strategic innovation decisions in domains such as transportation light-weighting, energy security, and nanotechnology. Beyond his research engagements, Ross has presented at conferences in Asia, Europe, and North America on topics ranging from carbon fiber composites to thin film solar cells.

Prior to joining Lux Research, Ross worked as a chemical engineer at the Silicon Valley solar startup Solexant, developing flexible thin film photovoltaic cells using printable nanomaterial technologies.

Ross holds a Master’s degree in Advanced Chemical Engineering from the University of Cambridge and a B.S.E in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University, with certificates in Materials Science and Finance.

Date Added: Jan 31, 2013 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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