Graphene finds commercial applications

For something so tiny, there has been a lot of hype generated from Graphene.

Rightly or wrongly it has been labelled a miracle material, touted as the next 'big thing', and apparently we will be able to use it to make anything and everything better. But how practical is it? How can you or I actually use it?

The answer is we can't. Yet. However, there is a lot of work going on to find ways of getting it out of the lab and in to products and hardware. A number of companies, particularly in the UK and US, are investing heavily in trying to produce Graphene in volume.

Graphene itself is a flat single mono layer of carbon atoms. On its own these tend to roll up and create a scroll, commonly known as a nanotube. But, multiple layers of graphene – known as Graphenes – are what is interesting the materials engineering industry as they make up what is known as a Graphene nano-platelets. Carbon Nanotubes, Graphene, Graphene Nano Platelets are all fillers theoretically capable of providing enabled components with game changing superior physical and electrical enhancements

These are available from a number of suppliers in the marketplace, but on a fairly limited basis at the moment. One company addressing just this problem is Haydale based in south Wales. However, rather than using a wet chemistry approach involving acid and thermal-shocking, it has developed a cold-plasma treatment technique that can produce high quality platelets that then make it easier for practical application.

"Our ability to disperse these Graphene nano-platelets in another material is quite far enhanced," says Ray Gibbs, commercial and finance director at Haydale. "And, fundamentally, that is the biggest single issue that the market place faces; trying to disperse homogeneously Graphenes in to a polymer or other materials."

What Haydale hopes to do is find a way of commercialising Graphene, in relatively high volume, as a cost effective alternative to existing technologies and techniques. This is perhaps why it has developed a conductive ink.

Conductive inks offer substantial market opportunity to enable Haydale to get demand for higher volumes whilst proving the technology as a viable alternative to existing materials. It's hoped this grounding will then allow then to approach other markets and applications.

At the moment conductive inks rely on silver as a means for making conductive ink. However, Graphene offers a genuine substitution opportunity in the market place and can perform the same kinds of functions at a lower cost.

Conductive inks have the potential to be used in a variety of industries for many different applications such as RFID tags, electrical packaging and electronic paper. Silver inks are used to print RFID tags in all sorts parts and component such as transit tickets like an Oyster Card.

"If we sat down and thought about all the possible applications we'd quickly fill up the page and be on to the next one," says Gibbs. "We are focussing on what our product can do today. We know there is a definite application in conductive inks, which shows massive potential."

At the moment Graphene is most likely to be sold to research facilities which will probably purchase it in grams. However, for engineering firms potentially looking to use it as a functional filler much larger volumes need to be procured.
"And that is where the bottle neck is," says Gibbs. "We have got to scale up and are confident we can make that happen."
Haydale hopes to achieve this with its new reactor which uses cold plasma to make Graphenes. It is being commissioned early next year. What it wants to achieve is being able to scale up a repeatable high quality process to allow people to use a Graphene as a replacement, or in some cases enabling, technology.

"Today we can do a tonne a year," says Gibbs. "Next year we will be looking at 10-20tonnes a year. However, we are not doing this out of speculation. There are a number of customers which have said when the capability to create tonnes is there, we will entertain you."

Application: Out of the lab
There is a lot of hype – and hope – around Graphene and potential applications are the source of much worldwide research. While still very much in the lab, there is some extremely promising results and applications that are being investigated.

Scientists in the US have built the first ever solar cell made entirely of carbon, which offers a promising alternative to the expensive materials currently used. Stanford has produced a thin film prototype that replaced the silver and indium tin oxide used in conventional electrodes with Graphene. Other researchers have been able to use a Graphene sheet covered by cobalt and cobalt-oxide to offer a cheaper and more durable alternative to platinum, the material commonly used as a catalyst in a fuel cell.

Graphene has also been used to coat metal and help corrosion. Researchers from Monash University and Rice University in the US has produced a Graphene-based coating so thin that it's invisible to the human eye but it has been shown to make copper nearly 100 times more resistant to corrosion, creating potential for metal protection even in harsh environments.

This opens up uses for a range of applications, from ocean-going vessels to electronics, offering significant cost savings for many industries. While the process is still in the laboratory-testing stage, the team are now not only looking at different metals, but also investigating ways of applying the coating at lower temperatures, which would simplify production and enhance market potential.

So while the mainstream media continue to hype up the 'miracle material', those of us that actually want to exploit its properties may have to wait a little longer for the possibilities come to fruition. Like other nanomaterials, Graphene is likely to be in development for sometime before it can begin to be exploited. However, it does offer some tantalising applications and uses that may speed it full commercialisation. Watch this space.

Justin Cunningham

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