A lightbulb with a graphene filament. (ANGUS MCNEICE / CHINA DAILY)
It's been 14 years since the discovery of graphene, and the world is still waiting for the "wonder material" to provide the groundbreaking innovations the initial headlines promised.
They come here and say this is the place for fundamental research. We can't compete with you, so we will collaborate with you
Professor, Materials Science, Univeristy of Manchester
We were told our cars, computers and smartphones would be enhanced by graphene, and that the ultra-versatile form of carbon would usher in an era of wearable electronics and prevent droughts by enabling the filtering of salt from seawater.
One entrepreneur promised unlimited energy from below the Earth's surface via a graphene cable, and another suggested a graphene space elevator tethered at the equator.
In a world currently void of futuristic graphene-based gadgets, many are now questioning whether the material will live up to the hype. According to James Baker, chief executive of Graphene@Manchester, it will, and that moment may be just around the corner, he said.
"We are approaching a tipping point," said Baker. "In 12 to 18 months, you will start to see graphene products hit the marketplace at an ever-increasing pace."
Baker leads business-related development of graphene at the University of Manchester, where the National Graphene Institute is known as the heart of global graphene research.
"Having all of these capabilities in one building is what attracts people from everywhere," said Xiao Ping, a professor of materials science at the University of Manchester. "They come here and say this is the place for fundamental research. We can't compete with you, so we will collaborate with you."
Graphene nerve sensors control the movement of a robotic hand. (PHOTO / GRAPHENE FLAGSHIP EU)
Both Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and the Aero Engine Corporation of China are conducting research at the NGI, a facility President Xi Jinping toured during his state visit to the United Kingdom in 2015.
The Chinese and British governments have since formed joint graphene working groups that make it possible for researchers to work together to create a future built on graphene.
Through these efforts, Baker said graphene and many of its associated products are close to overcoming two major obstacles faced by all emergent technologies. First, the "valley of death", in which a lack of funding kills off prototypes on their journey from lab to factory. And, second, the "trough of disillusionment", which lies between the initial hype around an innovation and its eventual real-world applications.
Looking beyond the hype
Grab a pencil and some sticky tape, and you're holding the lab equipment necessary to win a Nobel Prize.
In 2004, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim, two physicists at the University of Manchester, discovered graphene by peeling apart layers of graphite using adhesive strips.
At just the width of an atom across, graphene is the thinnest material known to humans, and also the strongest.
In graphene, carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagonal lattice formation, similar to the pattern of chicken wire.
Strong covalent bonds between the atoms give graphene a tensile strength 325 times greater than steel, while maintaining flexibility and elasticity. Graphene is also an efficient conductor of heat and electricity, and is ultra-lightweight.
Xiao Ping, a professor of materials science at the NGI, shows a graphene composite. (ANGUS MCNEICE / CHINA DAILY)
The discovery instigated a whirlwind of speculation into how the new material could change the world.
"But graphene is just a teenager," said Baker. "Right now, we are in the 'trough of disillusionment', and we are starting to climb out of it."
Part of the journey through a hype cycle requires an adjustment of expectations, said Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, a director at Cambridge consultancy IDTechEx who has been conducting market research into graphene since 2006.
"There is a difference between ideal graphene, the wonder material, and commercial graphene, which is more down-to-earth," said Ghaffarzadeh.
He explains that there are numerous varieties of graphene－sheets, flakes, and powders made of multi-layered or few-layered graphene to name but a few－and most are currently used as an additive to improve the performance of other materials.
There is even debate over whether certain additives can be classed as graphene. Last year, China and the UK formed a graphene standardization working group aimed at ensuring quality control in the market.
On the nano level, single-layer graphene has fantastic properties. On a larger scale, some forms of graphene act like graphite, while others behave like an oxide.
This makes it challenging to convince industry to turn to graphene, where the material would compete with other additives that are cheaper and only marginally poorer performers.
But several products enhanced by graphene are already on the market in China. Beijing Carbon Century Technology produces an energy-saving graphene modifier for engine oil. Wuxi-based GMCC Electronic Technology makes a graphene-enhanced supercapacitor that is an alternative to electrochemical batteries and has a shorter charge time. Beijing-based Xiaomi and Guangzhou-based FiiO have incorporated graphene into headphone drivers. And other Chinese companies sell optical displays, LED light bulbs, and tires that are all enhanced with graphene.
Scientists conduct research at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, United Kingdom. (ANGUS MCNEICE / CHINA DAILY)
Huawei has been tipped to release a smartphone with graphene-assisted batteries in the near future. The batteries are said to be able to charge fully in a matter of minutes and have an increased capacity.
Huawei has been one of the fastest adopters of graphene in its industry. The company's founder, Ren Zhengfei, is optimistic about the material's ability to dramatically change the electronics technology.
In 2016, Huawei developed a graphene-enhanced lithiumion battery for mobile network-base stations that remains functional at extreme temperatures.
Huawei is currently three years into a joint research program at the NGI that is exploring how graphene could be used in next-generation communications technologies.
"The University of Manchester has enormous expertise and the best facilities for working with the material," said Chen Lifang, a corporate senior vice-president at Huawei.
Elsewhere within the NGI's labyrinth of laboratories, Xiao Ping is leading a project for the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials, or BIAM, which is a subsidiary of the Aero Engine Corporation of China.
The project he is working on is looking to accelerate the use of graphene in the aviation industry.
"Right now, we are focused on fundamental research," said Xiao. "And we have found that graphene can be used as an additive to increase the performance of several other materials."
Xiao's research has shown that graphene can prevent the growth of cracks in ceramics, which are used in internal combustion engines.
Bridging the valley
Baker said that for graphenebased products to move from concept to commercialization, they must overcome the "valley of death" problem.
Governments and universities will back initial research, and the private sector will invest in a product that can be replicated at scale. But there is a gap between those two development phases in which innovation is starved of funding.
To bridge this gap, the University of Manchester and the UK government have invested 60 million pounds (US$78 million) into the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Center, otherwise known as GEIC (pronounced "geek"). The cavernous facility will switch on its machines later this year. It will allow companies to use the equipment to replicate prototypes by the dozen, proving to investors that inventions are scalable.
"Companies from China and elsewhere can come here with an idea for a product and develop it," said Baker. "It's a make-or-break space for some of the ideas we've come up with around graphene. If we do that successfully, we will increase the pace of graphene products into the commercial sphere."
And those Chinese companies have the support of a government that has doubled down on advanced materials.
(BRETT DIETRICH / CHINA DAILY)
China leads the way
China has emerged as a key territory for graphene production. In China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) that started in 2016, new materials development is listed among the leading sectors of the national economy.
Around 3,000 Chinese companies are exploring uses for graphene, according to government statistics, while half of the world's graphene-related patents have been filed in China.
China now has close to 75 percent of the nominal global production capacity for graphene, according to IDTechEx, and the price of graphene has fallen from several thousand dollars a gram to around US$75 a kilogram during the last decade. Production capacity is expanding, as foreign companies follow demand and establish operations in China.
UK-based advanced materials engineering company Versarien is currently building a graphene factory in Jinan, Shandong province.
"It's a brand-new science, and China is trying to take the lead, and is willing to invest heavily to create that lead," said Neill Ricketts, chief executive at Versarien.
Ghaffarzadeh predicts that, during the next five to 10 years, graphene will mostly be restricted to the additive market.
"But that is not to say that there won't eventually be those truly groundbreaking results down the line," he said. "Graphene really does have fantastic properties and its potential is huge."
READ MORE: Graphene industry gathers pace in China
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