Graphene research to define the ‘wonder’ material’s potential

As the world looks to continue its rapid development of technology, graphene has emerged as a leap forward in development, if the material’s potential was realised, advisory firm Deloitte’s fifteenth edition of the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) predictions report revealed on Wednesday.

Unpacking the results of this year’s technology predictions, Deloitte technology leader Arun Babu said 2016 would be the year of research to catalyse the rewards of the “wonder material” in the next five to ten years and unlock a multibillion-dollar industry.

According to Deloitte, graphene could be used in – and enable a breakthrough of – an array of applications, offering an “unrivalled” combination of tensile, electrical, thermal and optical properties; however, it would likely be decades before its potential was fully realised.

Graphene was described as a flexible and “very strong” two-dimensional single-atom thick structure, based on graphite, and was transparent, impermeable to gases and liquids and an “excellent” conductor.

Deloitte indicated that graphene could initially be used on a large scale in ultra-lightweight manufactured products and flexible displays, as well as high-capacity smartphone batteries and touchscreens, memory chips, water filtration systems, smart plasters, graphene-enhanced construction materials and contact lenses that enabled infrared vision.

In 2016, and most likely, the decade to come, graphene and graphene-enhanced products would enter a research and prototyping phase, which could offer a glimpse into some of the future technologies and benefits of graphene, propelling the world into a “graphene era”.

Babu said hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent on graphene research and development this year, as the material, which was discovered in 2004, increasingly attracted the interest of manufacturers worldwide.

He cited interest from the European Union, which had injected some $1.3-billion into a consortium of academic and commercial researchers under the ‘Graphene Flagship’ initiative, while the UK government had provided $353-million to fund a graphene research centre.

“Tech companies are investing in developing their understanding of the material. Samsung, for example, has already applied for hundreds of graphene-related patents,” the TMT report showed.

However, while the material presented seemingly unlimited development opportunities, Deloitte said commercialising graphene came with its own set of significant challenges.

“The main challenge lies in manufacturing large quantities of graphene, in various formats and at an affordable price, with effective yields and a purity sufficient so as not to impair the material’s desired chemical properties. Despite many academic and commercial research groups investigating methods of production, making large quantities of graphene remains a profound challenge,” the report pointed out.

Deloitte noted that, despite graphene currently being produced by a variety of methods, it was not suitable for large-scale manufacture and was micrometres in size.

It was currently used as an element within a resin to manufacture solid structures, the report noted.

Currently, the market price of graphene was around $100/g, which was expected to reduce once the method of production was optimised and scaled up.

Deloitte said a few dozen commercially available composite graphene-enhanced products would see the market this year, but the material would be used as a supplementary material until at least 2020, when it was expected the manufacturing process for graphene would be “mature enough” to allow it to be used as a key material in products.

Deloitte Global predicted that the total value of the graphene materials market in 2016 would be in the low end of tens of millions of dollars, which was “less than an hour’s projected revenues from smartphone sales”.

“We anticipate that the graphene market, including material sales, will likely not surpass $30-million in 2016. By the end of the decade, material sales may still be a little more than $100-million – which represents growth, but also a continuation of the research phase,” the report said.

However, should the material be successfully commercialised on a larger scale, in the medium term, graphene may be incorporated into products worth many billions of dollars each year.