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Many people speculate as to why the graphene industry is not larger when the material itself is capable of many great things. The simple answer is time. Time is a big factor for any industry; and time, patience and market confidence play their part in the maturation of any industry, regardless of the material, how good its properties are, and the potential applications/end-user markets.
Graphene Industry is in its Infancy
If you look at any major industry today, be it composites, plastics or specialty chemicals, they will be decades old and have had time to reach the size and maturity that we now see. Just because these industries are now well established, they still had to grow like any major sector. Graphene is no different, but the main difference is that graphene was only isolated 15 years ago. It should also be mentioned that this was in the most basic form in an academic laboratory (with sticky tape and graphite). Quite frankly, the fact that graphene has got to the stage that it is currently at is nothing short of impressive.
Many people overlook the fact that the graphene industry is like any other industry and needs time to reach widespread commercial success. The main reason for this is that people only focus in one thing—that it is a wonder material, with fantastic properties, that will solve many problems. While undeniably true, this is a fundamental science that people are referring to, and building an industry requires more than just a material possessing advantages over the status quo. The route to scale-up must be mapped, the end-users identified, safety protocols established (for handling, creating and using the material), standards realized, and the combination of all these factors takes a significant amount of time.
Factors Slowing Down the Expansion of Graphene Industry
One of the key reasons why people have been so impatient is due to the mainstream media, and the subsequent hype that has been placed on graphene. The expectation came because the science of the material is fantastic, and this made people believe that it should be available immediately, in vast quantities, and in a form that anybody can use. This is not how science works, nor is it how any industry works. There are far too many factors that come into play when building an industry, you cannot rely solely on the success of the material’s fundamental properties to be a driver to commercial success. Economics and safety aside, it sometimes transpires that material production cannot be scaled up effectively. While this is not the case for graphene, I myself have been involved with scale-up processes where the material in question cannot be scaled in a cost-effective manner. So, just because the fundamental science fits, it does not mean the material will be a success.
While the above potential issues have not manifested in graphene, it can be safe to say that it has not been the easiest material to scale up, and a lot of effort has been put into making it commercially available. While it is not a huge industry yet, it is one that is growing at a significant rate around the world. People should take note of the problems that surrounded carbon nanotubes when they were rushed from production to implementation in an attempt to find commercial success. This was another media-touted ‘wonder material’ that flopped because it was rushed. People could not disperse and align it properly, therefore the beneficial properties that could be utilized were not present in the end-user application. Had people taken their time with learning how to effectively formulate and integrate carbon nanotubes, they would not have flopped as they did. They have since made a resurgence, but people should learn from this and not rush the graphene industry before it is ready, because the results will be much more fruitful if time and care is taken.
There is another issue that has held the industry back somewhat, and that is the lack of knowledge about how to use graphene from the end-user’s side. There are in fact many different types of graphene, all of which are good for different things, and all of which need to be treated differently when being incorporated into a product. End-user’s have tended to take any type of graphene, at any weight percentage, and expect to see miraculous results. These results can happen by choosing the right type, and through optimizing the formulation/incorporation process, but again, these take time, and many people have expected instant results due to the nature of graphene’s properties and media hype. The inability to educate the end-user has stagnated the industry in some respects, as companies will move on to a different material if they cannot get the desired results when expected. Luckily, this is a factor that should be changing and will be negated over the next few years, as a lot of work is going into educating the end-user markets about how to best use, functionalize and incorporate different types of graphene into various mediums.
Everyone’s definition of a large industry is different, and for a more niche industry, the graphene industry is already fairly large. What the take-home message should be here, is that every industry needs time to grow and become established and that the graphene industry is still a baby compared to other industries and has not yet had time to peak. Lots of work is being done at the industry, association, regulation, and policymaker level to create a global graphene industry that can supply many end-user markets. The industry that people are expecting to see will come to fruition, but it is something that cannot be rushed too much, as we have already seen what the effects of rushing an industry can do. Time is all that is needed, especially as the industry is now at a tipping point where we are expecting the growth and implementation in new markets to be exponential over the next few years.
Sources and Further Reading
- What's Happened in the Last Year - Global Graphene Expo