Has Graphene Grown Up?

Graphene is the world’s lightest and strongest material. . . but how is it being used?

Who knew that the humble pencil held the key to supercharging clean energy, the Internet of Things and 3D printing? Well, not the pencil exactly, but the graphite – leading to the graphene – inside it. Graphite is made up of layers and layers of graphene, the strongest and lightest material ever discovered. However, it wasn’t until 2004 that two professors at the University of Manchester were able to isolate graphene for the first time. Enthusiasts have been discussing its potential ever since.

Graphene could disrupt industries including energy, electronics, healthcare, manufacturing, nanoscience, transport and even quantum computing research. Its recently discovered superconductivity also promises to enable complex, sensor driven Internet of Things infrastructures.

All bark, no bite?

Despite its apparent utility, graphene is still relatively novel. Only a handful of companies and research teams have managed to successfully carry out practical applications for the wonder material. UK based startup Xefro, for example, used graphene to coat their smart heater system to reduce energy waste. Unfortunately, the company was found to be misleading the public and was liquidated in 2015. The majority of graphene’s press has celebrated what it could do, but not so much what it’s actually done. Limited scalability and high expense have restricted experimentation, contributing to graphene’s slow adoption. That being said, some graphene based projects have returned positive results. In 2016, university researchers were able to create a water purifier capable of filtering nine times faster than the leading commercial alternative. Made with gel like graphene oxide, it can filter chemicals, viruses and bacteria from ingestible liquids.

Within manufacturing, the application of graphene’s ultrathin atom sheets has been aided by 3D printing trials. As well as informing additive manufacturing designs, graphene has also been used as ink. Ink jet printed graphene has been used to print electrical circuits for electronic devices to make them more flexible and water repellent. No more worrying about whether your smartwatch can handle another shower, or if your smartphone can cope with being sat on.

In the digital age, graphene’s superconductivity could be imperative in the creation of functional, connected products and services. But using graphene isn’t all about creating tiny, delicate sensors. It’s about making technology far more robust – which shouldn’t be a problem considering that the material is 200 times stronger than steel. Its use in innovative manufacturing, namely 3D printing, is promising in terms of production.

What needs to happen to accelerate adoption?

First of all, graphene research requires the backing of big organisations to access resources and make a notable industrial impact. This ties into the ongoing need for funding, which would allow for greater experimentation. The work of materials scientists will be integral in encouraging sustainability, so there’s quite a lot more to gain than ROI. Ultimately, graphene’s wider use is inevitable simply because it complements the rise of numerous disruptive trends and technologies.

Graphene’s track record reads like many a school report. . . there’s serious potential, but it hasn’t quite materialised. Fortunately, this can be largely put down to current technological limitations. Now that 3D printing, electronics, energy solutions and the IoT are maturing, they need materials with astounding capabilities to support such growth. As a superconductor, graphene is likely to become a key enabler for sustainable business development. This will attract interest and investment, and set the ball rolling for corporate consideration. Experiments with graphene are also likely to be enriched by R&D in materials science. In some respects, it could be argued that graphene has failed to meet expectations. But, given time, it could well exceed them. As the old idiom goes, slow and steady wins the race and businesses would be wise to put their money where the material is.

Why have practical applications of graphene been slow to take off? What else could the material be used for? Does your business or industry benefit from graphene, and how? Share your thoughts.