The discovery of graphene has not only won two scientists the Nobel Prize, but its extraordinary properties have triggered a boom in research, investment and superlatives. While the list of potential applications continues to rise, and the race to invest and research speeds up, a major challenge remains making graphene cheaply and easily.

What is changing?

Graphene was discovered in 2004. Since then it has regularly been described as a miracle material, because of the superlatives that litter its credentials:  it is the thinnest material – one atom thick; it is the fastest conductor of heat; outperforms copper in conducting electricity; is the strongest material ever – 200 times stronger than structural steel; the most impermeable – even helium  cannot penetrate it; is so stretchy that a gram could cover several football pitches; may be as versatile as all plastics put together; is transparent, flexible and from a readily available raw material – graphite.

Investment and research are growing. The UK government has just announced a £50 million investment; South Korea is investing £195 million; the EU likely to invest £1 billion over ten years. Some 200 companies and numerous universities are researching into graphene’s properties and developing applications. In 2010, an estimated 3000 research papers were published and about 200 companies were active in the field.

Samsung and IBM are among the biggest. Samsung and Sungkyunkwan University  have manufactured a 60cm wide polyester supported sheet – rather than miniscule flakes – of graphene for use in flexible touch screens. They believe that there could be a dozen or so graphene based products on the market within 5 years.  IBM, meanwhile, has produced a transistor using graphene with a performance limit of 150 Gigahertz (GHz), beating their own previous record of 100 GHz; to put it in perspective, the fastest silicon transistor reaches 40 GHz.

But there are challenges. Low cost, large scale manufacture being one: at present, researchers can make about 2 grams of graphene per day. As one of the investors put it, “We need to get the price from £60 a microgram, to £60 a kilogram.” The lack of an ‘off switch’ is another challenge, but also the focus of increasing research and a possible breakthrough. Whether it will in fact live up to its promise another – many of its properties are seen at the nano scale; whether they will fully scale up remains to be seen.

Why is this important?

If graphene lives up to its promise then we could be facing a genuine revolution -in materials, electronics, energy, and many more areas. Almost anything and everything could be digitised, programmable and interactive from packaging to wall coverings. Components and equipment could be flexible, there is talk of mobile phones you can roll up and put behind your ear like a pencil. Everything from cars, to planes to houses could be lighter and stronger, as new forms of composite materials emerge. We could be able radically to improve energy storage, so enhancing the capacity of renewable sources such as wind and solar. Not only would Moore’s Law continue, but we may see the arrival of quantum computers. Graphene could generate its own industrial revolution.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.