07 July 2013

IEEE Proceeding into business with graphene

With electronic applications high on the wish list for graphene researchers, it makes sense for the IEEE's premier journal to run a special issue on graphene. The July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE, Volume 101 Issue 7, has 19 papers on the exploits of our wonder material.

The ‘guest editors’ for this issue, Elias Towe, Tomas Palacios and Maki Suemitsu, kick off the proceedings with their overview and the observation that, after a century on the sidelines, “the field is
now ready for serious consideration of graphene as an electronic material”. While they say that this issue of the journal sets out “to highlight some of the different devices and applications currently being pursued” is also has some interesting observations on what it will take to get these devices and applications into production. For example, the paper “Graphene Growth and Device Integration” talks about how you grow the stuff using chemical vapour deposition (CVD).

The special issue also goes beyond technology and engineering in the paper “Market Uptake Potential of Graphene as a Disruptive Material”. As its introduction says, this paper “assesses the commercial potential of graphene in large volume applications”. As the guest editors say “the paper focuses on applications where comparisons can be made with other existing materials that currently dominate particular market segments”. The paper’s authors say that they have concentrated on areas “where graphene may offer competitive advantage over incumbent materials”.

Henar Alcalde, who teaches business policy at Deusto University in Spain, and her colleagues say that thanks to its “rare combination of properties, graphene has the potential to be applied in many different fields such as electronics, optoelectronics, energy (solar, batteries, supercapacitors), touch screen and display technology, lighting, sensors, biotechnology, and composites”. But that is no guarantee that graphene will kick aside competing materials in any, let alone all, of these applications. As they add “for graphene to become a truly disruptive material, a number of other conditions have to be fulfilled”.

Perhaps it is because the authors include business researchers that makes their account an easy read. (They do, though, have one graphene insider among the authors, Amaia Zurutuza is the scientific director of the Spanish start-up Graphenea.) The technical stuff isn’t as much a part of their everyday activity as it is for for most of the the engineers and researchers who wrote the rest of the special issue. It is easy to follow their explanations of how graphene's properties give it an edge over existing materials for touch-screen panels and solar cells. The advantage is down to graphene’s flexibility and strength.

It will come as no surprise to read “The main disadvantage of graphene over some of the incumbent materials comes from the point of view of production costs since graphene is currently produced on a
laboratory scale.” But, as they say, give it time.

One good point in their account is where the paper talks about things that graphene can do that are beyond the powers of other materials.  Or, as the authors put it, the application of graphene “to latent user needs that have yet to become unlocked”.

As other technologies have shown, when an upstart threatens to oust a well established material, the old hand has a remarkable ability to keep one jump ahead. An obvious case here is the magnetic material used to store data in hard drives. The density of data on a disk just keeps going up, making it hard for alternatives to compete economically.

Applications where graphene isn’t competing with existing materials include the possibility of “rendering features and qualities to consumer products (such as foldability and flexibility to cell phones and television screens) as a form of ‘incremental innovation,’ leading to the supply of new value propositions on existing product-market combinations, and on the other hand, by giving way to the development of products that would not be possible without the use of graphene”.

Alcalde et al clearly believe that “the possibility of a broad-based uptake and application of graphene is very real”. But that will happen only if the materials proponents can deal with three issue:
  • the cost, scalability, and reliability of graphene development/manufacturing
  • getting the properties right for particular applications and providing something better than the alternatives
  • the health and safety implications of nanotechnology in general and graphene in particular.
The last one is important. Graphene may not have the potential to arouse the same emotional heat as genetically modified food or fracking, but it doesn’t make sense to leave it until the products start to turn up in shops to tackle public acceptability. There is already a cadre of activists who see dangers in nanotechnology. As the paper says “the uptake of graphene depends on sociopolitical considerations:  health and safety regulations”.

As the paper puts it, lapsing into business speak, “The speed of adoption of new materials like graphene depends not only on technological progress in terms of making it fit for final products and putting it in place in production processes, but it also relies considerably on the awareness of the (superior) properties of graphene-based products on behalf of final consumers, so that demand vectors can take shape.” Anyone know what a ‘demand vector’ might be?

There is an interesting extra observation with implications for the politicians who are currently throwing money into graphene research in the hope that it will revive flagging economies. Innovation does not end when an idea emerges from the laboratory. You have to turn it into products and then find customers for them. As the paper puts it, it also depends on “whether the public sector acts strategically through its own public procurement mechanisms and industrial policy levers to support the uptake of graphene in the form of strategic (demonstration) projects, which can provide direction to and leverage private (research and commercialization) initiatives and thus pool resources, also setting out technological pathways and standards early on”.

How long will all this take? Alcalde et al give examples of other new materials that have taken 20 years or more to have an impact. They make the obvious statement that “the time to market will vary depending on the complexity of the application”. Graphene enthusiasts will warm to their statement that “in the case of graphene-based materials, the market incubation period may be considerably shorter than the traditional 20 years base rule”.

The money involved is massive. They reckon that the transparent conductor market “was estimated to be $2 billion in 2012”. And $1.5 billion of this went into indium tin oxide (ITO), one of the applications where graphene’s flexibility, not to mention its “very low light reflectance”, is superior for touch-screens, a rapidly rising technology. As they say “even a small percentage of this market could mean a considerable sales volume for graphene”.

There is another sign that graphene is unlike other new materials that have turned up promising to catalyse an industrial revolution. (Anyone else remember C60?) The material “shows a steeper patenting curve than other materials that have meanwhile reached a mainstream status for usage in industrial and product applications”. For the authors of this paper the sheer mass of activity and the patenting pattern “make it likely that graphene will turn out to be a disruptive material for many products and industries”.

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