Just ten years after the first experimental realization of graphene, and less than five years after the associated Nobel prize, graphene is transforming from a physics lab material into a mass-produced commodity. This year has seen several announcements of successful manufacture of graphene on the large scale.
A most recent and long expected mention goes to MesoGraf, produced by the Grafoid-Focus Graphite-Graphite Zero trinity of companies. The production process starts at Focus Graphite’s Canadian graphite mines, where high-quality graphite is extracted. The graphite is then sent to South Korea where Graphite Zero uses Grafoid’s proprietary process to manufacture pristine graphene in bulk volumes. While the companies state that work still remains to be done, the claim is that even low purity graphite can be used to produce MesoGraf. Furthermore, the process involves only one chemical step and is environmentally sustainable. Grafoid continues to produce intellectual property and seek consumer partners.
Graphene Technologies seems to have gone even a step further, having recently announced the acceptance of its patent application to make graphene from feedstock. The process radically departs from known methods, as it involves the burning of magnesium in a carbon dioxide atmosphere to make high quality few-layer graphene nanoplatelets. “With this process for producing graphene from carbon dioxide, Graphene Technologies is setting a new standard in terms of cost, quality, scalability and sustainability,” said Jon Myers, the company’s CEO.
Graphene nanoplatelets are usually a few layers thick and are sold as powders or in solution. The leading provider and IP owner of nanoplatelets is Angstron Materials, who keep a constant pace of innovation leading to higher production volumes and lower cost of graphene.
Graphenea, a specialist in chemical vapour deposition (CVD) growth of graphene, is meanwhile announcing its own proprietary process for low cost growth of large area single layer graphene. Graphenea’s expected breakthrough will lead to true single layer graphene on a hard substrate, as opposed to the previously mentioned examples of graphene in liquid solutions. Past experience has shown that sheets of graphene on hard substrates possess better quality than those in solution.
A number of scientific research groups have recently come up with various improvements to the mass manufacture of graphene. Northwestern University has shown a method of graphene production that involves only ethanol and ethyl cellulose, two environmentally friendly and relatively low-cost chemicals. The method leads to graphene flakes of high enough quality for use in conductive inks. At University of Alberta, chemists have made graphene from a byproduct of hemp manufacture. Although the process involves potassium hydroxide, which is not exactly cheap, the resulting graphene has been used for supercapacitors that have better properties than their commercially available relatives.
Other examples of novel graphene mass production methods have been flooding science magazines in the past months. It seems that this is the year when graphene mass production finally comes of age. But what’s next? According to a report from IDTechEx, graphene will have to fight a hard battle against entrenched technologies on all markets.
“The normal 7-step sequence for new technologies and markets is hope-hype-boom-bust-disillusionment-shakeout-profitability”, says Alan Rae of the Graphene Stakeholders Association. “It is normal for new technologies and markets to show explosive growth in all directions and not all directions will be successful. We always go through this process to explore all the possibilities and identify the applications that have real economic and/or social benefit.”
We have definitely seen the “hope” and the “hype” stages of graphene development, and the current explosion of mass production could just prove to be the beginning of the “boom”. The Graphene Stakeholders Association is working hard to try and circumvent some of the less pleasant 7 steps and beat some of the conservative market predictions. It remains to be seen whether a material with such extraordinary properties as graphene will also perform extraordinarily on the market.