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Graphene has become something of a celebrity material in recent years. The nano-thin film application of carbon is so celebrated due to its numerous useful features. It is transparent, flexible, and electrically conductive. Its proposed uses include wearable technology, smartphone touch screens, sporting equipment, electronics, filtration systems, composite materials, energy storage, and even energy generation in the form of sustainable solar power.
Graphene is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms in a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice, where each atom forms a vertex. It is an allotrope (structural configuration) of carbon and forms the structural basis of many other allotropes including graphite, charcoal, carbon nanotubes, and fullerenes.
Its properties are impressive. It is one hundred times stronger than the strongest available steel in proportion to its thickness, yet has a significantly lower density. This makes it extremely flexible for its strength. It is a highly efficient conductive material for both electricity and heat and is almost transparent.
Graphene’s recent rise in popularity is credited to the University of Manchester, UK, researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov who discovered, isolated, and characterized the nano-material in 2004. The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Geim and Novoselov in 2010 for their discovery.
Emergent Graphene Industry
In 2012, just eight years after Geim and Novoselov’s discovery, the global graphene market was estimated at $9 million. This dramatic level of investment and interest was driven largely by manufacturers of semiconductor metals, electronics, battery energy, and composite materials.
Today, available applications of graphene technology include graphene-based touch panel modules, graphene tennis racquets, and graphene-infused printer powder.
The emergent industry is being supported by governments worldwide, hopeful that their countries are well-positioned to take advantage of the increasing number of commercially viable applications for this feature-rich material. The National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester, UK, for instance, was established with funding from the UK government and European Commission.
Challenges for the Graphene Industry
Despite this rising tide of interest and funding, this emergent graphene industry still faces many challenges, as can be expected of any newly created industry.
While graphene production is relatively cheap and simple – with some methods using only household items such as adhesive tape – large-scale manufacture remains a challenge. When larger quantities of graphene are produced, defects can enter into the process and the final product more easily. These defects can cause a significant reduction or even entire eradication of graphene’s useful properties.
Many researchers and companies are heavily invested in overcoming the production challenges in the graphene industry. Either with bottom-up techniques where the material is “grown” through manipulation of chemical processes, or top-down techniques where graphene is created by exfoliating layers from a starting material, would-be graphene producers are seeking to develop methods for the large-scale manufacture of defect-free graphene.
The relative ease that researchers can produce small amounts of graphene presents another issue facing the emergent graphene industry. There is an incredibly wide array of research on graphene’s various properties, however, this research is often unusable for industrial purposes. The reason for this is that different methods for creating graphene in the laboratory produce different kinds of graphene with different features.
Similarly, researchers are often disconnected due to academic specialism and interest, location, or commercial interests. This leads to a disconnected development for the graphene industry as a whole and should be addressed.
The role of government agencies, large funding bodies and companies, and research groups is important in overcoming this challenge. As more researchers can be brought together – for example in the NGI initiative in the UK – so can more synergies be found in their research.
This concurrent, synergistic development of the graphene industry will ensure a robust and rapid development of the technology and its applications.
As with any emergent technology, the graphene industry must overcome the challenge of unrealistic or inaccurate expectations. Solutions to this include the graphene roadmap developed at the NGI, which outlines how soon commercially available mass-produced graphene can be achieved.
This challenge must be balanced by the need for continued interest from investors and the public in the emergent technology. Graphene had been theoretically postulated as early as the 1960s, but little interest or vision for its potential applications meant that Geim and Novoselov had to effectively rediscover the material in the last decades.
Despite these potential issues, it should be expected that a graphene industry will emerge in the coming years and find numerous markets in a wide variety of fields.
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