You can pluck graphene from thin air – but then what?

Graphene! It’s the wonder stuff: the thinnest, stiffest, strongest and most impermeable material known to humanity, as well as the best thermal and electrical conductor. What’s more, a company called Graphene Technologies has figured out how to more-or-less pluck the stuff out of thin air – the firm has a scalable, patented technique for creating very pure graphene out of carbon dioxide.

So why does Graphene Technologies CEO John Myers sound so downbeat about the atom-thick carbon lattice?

Graphene Technologies founder John MyersSpeaking at Graphene Live in Berlin — co-located with the Printed Electronics Europe 2013 event — Myers pretty much asked the crowd of attendees whether any of them had any idea what to do with the stuff:

“I’m skeptical about the market I’m in now. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, but also a lot of confusion. The problem is there isn’t a market of any significant size for graphene.

“We all do ourselves a disservice with our inarticulate, self-congratulatory posturing. The fact is there isn’t a killer app yet and there’s no reason to think there will be, except there’s a lot of [effort] and money being thrown at it, and the material does appear to have a lot of potential.”

That potential is a big reason for the hype around graphene (which, we should bear in mind, was only manufactured for the first time less than a decade ago). Because of graphene’s properties, many see it as a possible successor to silicon — a material whose own computing-friendly properties will break down if we miniaturize it much more than we already do.

The problem there is that graphene doesn’t have an intrinsic band gap, making it tricky to use in transistors — simply put, you can’t turn a pure graphene transistor off. This may yet be fixed through clever doping (coating) techniques, but we still don’t know for sure whether that can be done while retaining graphene’s advantages.

What about touchscreens? Graphene is transparent and highly conductive, so in that regard it could be a great rival to the frequently-used indium-tin-oxide (ITO) as a conductive coating – and it’s more flexible, too. However, as IDTechEx analyst Khasha Ghaffarzadeh pointed out, graphene doesn’t significantly outperform ITO. It also has serious rivals on the flexibility front, chiefly from carbon nanotubes. Then there’s the fact that while there are concerns over the future supply of indium, an ever-increasing amount of the rare metal is being retrieved through recycling.

Graphene Technologies's graphene, produced from carbon dioxideGraphene is also touted as a replacement for activated carbon in the electrodes of supercapacitors, which are used in electric car batteries, for example. But, Ghaffarzadeh said, “it is again trying to replace a material that is well-known and low-cost.” And as a replacement for graphite (the source of graphene, of course) in carbon fiber? Ditto. How about for use in conductive inks? Again, carbon pastes are the rival, and they’re pretty cheap too.

As Ghaffarzadeh said:

“The potential is enormous, but it’s trying to do things that already exist, only a little bit better and a bit cheaper. We need new concepts that graphene alone is enabling: new platforms.”

Myers noted that we are “more than likely going to end up with a range of carbon nano-products, each of which will have a range of interesting features and uses.” Regarding graphene, he added that he hates competing on price, and doesn’t want to “go into a market where the value proposition is that I’m cheaper than the other guy.”

“I would urge everyone in the field to think about the process opportunity,” Myers said. “There’s no practical limit to the amount of this material that can be made. That means that, in the bulk world, graphene is going to be a commodity. As a business, you have to think about what kind of value you can create with the material, because you’re not going to make any money producing it.”

To that end, he added, Graphene Technologies has joined the brand new Graphene Stakeholders Association, which opened its doors on Thursday. There, he suggested, various players in the nascent scene can educate each other and collaborate.

And, hopefully, find the killer app for this wondrous substance.