The key to a new world?

Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/GettyImages

Finding the Killer App for Graphene

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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In 2002, a researcher experimenting with graphite -- aka pencil lead -- in physics professor Andre Geim’s lab at the U.K.’s University of Manchester discovered an ultra-thin layer of the substance sticking to a piece of Scotch tape in a wastebasket. Geim took the tape, folded it and pulled it apart a few times, and saw under a microscope that the layer kept getting thinner. As John Colapinto told the story in the New Yorker in 2014:

Geim had isolated the first two-dimensional material ever discovered: an atom-thick layer of carbon, which appeared, under an atomic microscope, as a flat lattice of hexagons linked in a honeycomb pattern. Theoretical physicists had speculated about such a substance, calling it “graphene,” but had assumed that a single atomic layer could not be obtained at room temperature -- that it would pull apart into microscopic balls.

Together with graduate student Konstantin Novoselov and others in his lab, Geim spent two more years researching the ultra-thin, ultra-strong, ultra-flexible material before publishing their first findings in the journal Science in 2004. Six years later Geim and Novoselov had won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their graphene work, and researchers at universities and companies around the world -- but mainly in Asia -- were hard at work patenting new uses for the “wonder material.” Possibilities include batteries, drug delivery, fuel cells, tissue engineering, transistors and water filters, among dozens of others.

The patents keep piling up. Through 2014 -- the most recent year for which the UK Intellectual Property Office has collected global data -- 25,855 graphene-related patents had been published, with more than 9,000 in 2014 alone. The top patenters have been Samsung, Ocean’s King Lighting of China, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, IBM and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Actual products based on graphene have remained scarce, though. There are tennis rackets with graphene in them, and some printed electronics that use graphene ink. Chinese startup Moxi Group announced last week that it would ship 100,000 bendable smartphones this year that it says are based on graphene technology, but it’s not clear what if any role the material actually plays in the devices. Graphene-coated light bulbs were supposed to go on sale in the U.K. last year, but the most recent word from the company that makes them is that they’re still on the way. Early hopes that graphene could displace silicon in semiconductors have mostly been disappointed. The wonder material has yet to transform the world.

Given that it has only been 12 years since the world learned about the stuff, this shouldn’t be a big surprise or disappointment. As Geim himself put it in 2013:

It's a bit silly for society to throw a little bit of money at something and expect it to change the world. Everything takes time.

I guess it’s also at least possible that graphene will prove to be a total bust, but that seems really unlikely. Others are experimenting with graphene in lighting too; one of the bulbs will hit the market eventually. Scientists have recently made progress in figuring out how to make graphene work as a semiconductor. And it could be that the most important uses for the substance are ones that no one has thought of yet. The hard-to-predict nature of technological progress is a major theme of Colapinto’s New Yorker article -- he tells the story of aluminum, which was first extracted from ore in 1825, was first extracted cheaply in 1889 and was hailed as a wonder metal for decades, but had little economic impact until the rise of airplanes in the 20th century finally gave it a transformative use.

One big factor would seem to be the availability of graphene. Right now it’s still scarce, and expensive. The market price at the end of 2015 was about $100 per gram, according to Deloitte. But big new sources of supply could be on the way. In an article Monday on Australian miner Mark Thompson of Talga Resources, who pivoted from looking for gold and iron to acquiring the mining rights to a seam of graphite north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Bloomberg's Anna Hirtenstein reported:

Talga is investing A$30 million [$21.7 million] in its Swedish mine and processing plant, with plans to start shipping 46,000 tons a year of graphite and 1,000 tons of graphene starting in 2018. By comparison, total global supply of graphene last year was about 1,000 tons, according to Graphene-Info.

A doubling of the graphene supply would be a big deal. And that could be just the beginning. Research published late last year suggests that leonardite, an abundant, low-grade lignite coal, could be used to manufacture graphene too. It’s also possible to make small flakes of graphene just by mixing graphite and detergent in a kitchen blender. Get enough of this remarkable material out there, at a low enough price, and people will find things to do with it. Right?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net