Graphene has been billed as a “wonder material” ever since it was first discovered by researchers in one of the University of Manchester’s labs back in 2004.
Made from a layer of carbon one atom thick, the semi-metal is many times stronger than steel, despite being so thin that 3mln sheets of it would barely reach 1 millimetre in thickness.
So many possibilities
That helps to make it extremely flexible and ultra-lightweight, while it is also an extremely efficient conductor of heat and electricity.
The list of potential applications is seemingly endless: it could be used in planes to make them lighter and improve fuel efficiency or mixed with paint to prevent rust, while Head has already designed a graphene-enhanced tennis racquet.
But if it’s so good, why have most companies and industries been reluctant to embrace it so far?
Liberum analyst Yuen Low thinks there are two main reasons, and both are linked to one another: cost and development.
Although 15 years since its discovery may sound like a long time, Low explains that graphene is still relatively early on in its development.
“With things like this, commercialisation takes years. It’ll spend years in the lab and then years in trials and scale-up and so on.
“You’ve got to look at how can you use it, and what you can put it in. Then you’ve got to work with engineers to figure out how to design the parts and then decide how to put them into production.”
He reckons it would be “quite an achievement” if graphene can achieve mass production and mainstream adoption within ten years.
Because it is in its relative infancy, the demand isn’t there yet, nor are the efficient manufacturing processes, meaning it’s a costly material to use – far more expensive than gold, in fact.
“Anything that is new will start off being prohibitively expensive, but as you develop it and you find cheaper ways of producing and incorporating graphene, the costs will fall.”
He likens graphene to lithium-ion batteries which, only a few years ago, were seen as too expensive, especially to be used cost-effectively in cars.
But continued development of them and refined manufacturing processes mean they are now a staple of electric cars (and even electric golf trollies, if you’re into that sort of thing).
Even over the past year or so though, there has been evidence that the price of graphene has fallen substantially.
Low’s message, therefore, is to be patient and not to fret, graphene really can live up to its hype. “There is no doubt that graphene will be a wonder material,” he concludes.
Signs of traction already
In fact, there have already been signs recently that the semi-metal is gaining traction.
Directa also has deals with companies such as Alfredo Grassi and Oakley, which are developing graphene-enhanced products using its G+ technology.
The English Institute of Sport will use Haydale and its long-term partner, the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating at Swansea University to incorporate graphene coatings into a range of clothing.